Movie review: “Lincoln”

This past weekend Partner and I saw Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln.” It’s very good – but then it’s bound to be: not only is it directed by Spielberg, it’s based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the Lincoln administration, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, writer of “Angels in America.”  The action covers the first few months of 1865: the Civil War, while still horribly bloody, is winding down, and the North is on the verge of winning. Lincoln is faced with a choice: accept the South’s peace overtures and allow them back into the Union as if nothing has happened, or ensure that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery is passed first. If he doesn’t do the latter, the old South will insist on its slave-holding ways. If he refuses to talk peace with the South’s representatives, Congress will accuse him of holding the country hostage on behalf of the Abolitionist movement.

If this sounds dull, it’s not. Like all of Spielberg’s best movies, it seesaws between tension and calm. Its best scenes capture both: Lincoln’s ride through the battlefield after the battle of Petersburg, as he surveys the mounds of dead bodies, is captured in ominous silence.

The cast is terrific, led by Daniel Day-Lewis as a gritty folksy Lincoln, half Andy Griffith, half John the Baptist, pacing inexorably (and knowingly) toward his own death, and Sally Field as a plump frantic Mary Todd Lincoln, smarter and more subtle than any other portrayal of Mary I’ve ever seen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a young haunted Robert Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones is Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican eager to eviscerate the rebellious South; David Strathairn is a lean acute William Seward; James Cusack is a plump mustached “lobbyist” hired by Seward (and indirectly by Lincoln) to bring the House of Representatives around to Lincoln’s point of view.

The movie depicts the reelection of a popular president who is, nonetheless, abhorred by a significant chunk of the populace. This president is trying to put through a significant piece of legislation – not because it’s popular, but because it’s the right thing to do, and because if he doesn’t, he will have accomplished nothing to solve the country’s real problems. This president also faces an angry and contentious congress.

Sound familiar?

Go see this movie. It will give you something to think about.

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