Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
New to Netflix this week is one of Steven Spielberg’s least showy pieces of cinema, remarkable if only because of the subject matter.
Poll one hundred random Americans as to who the greatest president in our country’s history was and it’s a safe bet that Abraham Lincoln’s name would come up quite a bit. The Great Emancipator is held in great esteem by this country; it is therefore fortunate that director Steven Spielberg and star Daniel Day-Lewis are here to pay homage with Lincoln, their fascinating story about the 16th President’s battle to pass the 13th Amendment, banning slavery.
Rather than attempting to tell the man’s whole life story, Lincoln focuses mostly on a single month of his presidency, shortly before the end of the Civil War. Lincoln has just been re-elected for a second term and it is becoming increasingly obvious that the North is going to win the war. The President is also pushing strong to pass the 13th Amendment, something that would surely prove impossible if the war were to end and the South were again able to send representatives to Congress. Thus begins a dangerous balancing act. He has the Amendment rushed to the floor in the House and waylays the South’s representatives who are coming to propose a peace. It’s a dangerous move, delaying the end of the war, but it’s a move the President feels is necessary in order to ensure the future of freedom in our country.
Lincoln also knows that he does not have enough votes at this point to ensure that the Amendment will be passed, so, with the help of Secretary of State William Seward, he enlists the help of a few outsiders to help swing some votes their way. He may be known as Honest Abe, but the movie is clear in showing that Lincoln wasn’t afraid to bend the rules if he determined it was in the country’s best interest. Some of his dealings may even be considered impeachable, which was actually the subject of a recent fictional book that theorized what might have happened had Lincoln survived the assassination attempt.
A lot of the movie takes place on the Senate floor, presenting a fascinating look at 19th Century politics. The Democratic and Republican representatives shout and bicker and call each other names as they heatedly discuss the proposal that they will soon vote on. One of the key figures in these sequences is Thaddeus Stevens, a life-long proponent of equal rights who ends up providing much of the film’s emotional core in a touching final scene.
Make no mistake, however, this is Abraham Lincoln’s movie and it is unlikely that we will ever see anyone play the man better than Daniel Day-Lewis. The actor embodies Lincoln so completely that it is easy to forget that we are watching a performance by an actor, and not the man himself, somehow reanimated. Not only does he completely look the part, but Lincoln historians have also already commented that his voice—slightly higher pitched than one might expect—is the closest any actor has ever come to replicating the President’s real voice and speech pattern.
Speaking of speeches, this movie is packed full of them. Some are political, but the best are the stories. Lincoln is known to have been a great storyteller who would favor a humorous anecdote over a lecture when he needed to get his point across and Lincoln does a remarkable job of showing off that side of him. Of course, when a stern lecture is needed, Lincoln could do it as well as anyone.
The script is written by Tony Kushner, who also wrote Spielberg’s Munich. Kushner researched diligently to make sure he got the 19th Century lingo down and, although it takes a little time for 21st Century ears to get used to it, it is quite effective. Meanwhile, Spielberg’s direction is relatively restrained. He uses his camera wisely, often opting for slow push-ins and pull-backs, while letting the great performances carry the movie.
In addition to the outstanding Day-Lewis the movie also features a remarkable performance by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, providing some of the film’s most powerful moments. Sally Field is also very strong as the First Lady, showing a darker and more historically accurate side of Mary Todd Lincoln than has previously been presented. James Spader, almost unrecognizable as a man named W.N. Bilbo, is also great, adding a lot of the film’s humor, while Jared Harris also impresses in a somewhat brief appearance as Ulysses S. Grant.
Lincoln focuses on a very short period in the life of one of the most fascinating men to ever walk the Earth, but it is hard to imagine another movie being able to present a more complete portrait of the man. This was one of the best movies of 2012.