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Movie review: 'Lincoln' focuses on political struggle over slavery

BY GEORGE LANG Published: November 16, 2012

Rather than attempting total biography or even a complete summation of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln” takes the full measure of the man by concentrating on the last few months of his life, as the 16th president of the United States fought to abolish slavery and end the Civil War.

The film succeeds grandly with Daniel Day-Lewis' beautifully rendered character study at its core, but it is also a trenchant study of the nation's character.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) based the script on Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and the bulk of its action takes place in January 1865 as Lincoln attempts to cobble together enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It could not be done merely on the strength of Republican abolitionist votes and could not stick solely by presidential order in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. He had to pull together enough Democratic votes not just to make it pass, but to make it bipartisan and lasting.

Spielberg and Kushner smartly circumscribe their timeline to just a few profoundly consequential weeks, mainly because Lincoln's mastery of politics and his personal sense of justice were never more acute, necessary and on-display than in those cold, muddy January days in Washington, D.C.

In a round-the-clock campaign to bring Congress to the right vote while there was just enough political will, Lincoln pushed his “Radical Republican” congressional allies such as U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and lobbyists W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tulsa-born Tim Blake Nelson) to make it happen. As such, “Lincoln” is an unlikely and exhilarating creation: an exciting, moving and occasionally funny movie about political process.

Over the course of 300-plus cinematic depictions since the dawn of film, the character of Abraham Lincoln evolved into a mythically solemn man with a deep voice to match his convictions, but Day-Lewis' Lincoln hews closer to the historical truth. In “Lincoln,” the president's voice is reedy and his tone familial and collegiate. He is a man possessing a deep reservoir of anecdotes for every political occasion and enthusiasm for deploying them for persuasive power, a running joke in the film and a frequent annoyance for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill).

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MOVIE REVIEW

‘Lincoln'

PG-132:293½ stars

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Jackie Earle Haley, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

(An intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)

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