The 2012 U.S. presidential election has come and gone. And regardless of the landslide victory, the nation suffers from a deeply ingrained sense of skepticism toward government.
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s wonderful and timely new cinematic creation, may offer more than a history lesson. As Spielberg points out in the production notes, “In this day and age when so many people have lost faith in the idea of governance, it’s a story that shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system.”
It’s no secret that the current president has often been compared to Lincoln. Perhaps this film will engender some true hope for the future by highlighting a piece of America’s exemplary political past.
Published in 2005, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s mega-bestseller of over 800 pages, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, provided just the ingredients that Spielberg had been hoping to find in order to tell a Lincoln story. According to the press notes, out of that massive tome, he and writing superstar Tony Kushner settled on telling the story of Lincoln’s passing of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—the abolition of slavery.
This particular slice of Lincoln’s life distills his essence with clarity. It gives insight into his family life, emotional life, and political genius. It has suspense, drama, and crisis. Can Lincoln end slavery and hold the Union together before the South surrenders?
In the same way Ben Kingsley was born to play Gandhi, Daniel Day-Lewis was born to play the 16th president of the United States. Day-Lewis simply is Lincoln. The makeup is brilliant, and Day-Lewis inhabits Lincoln’s 6-foot-4-inch gangling ranginess and faltering walk. He’s avuncular and a prolific, jokey raconteur.
In a split second, one moves from “Oh, there’s Daniel playing Abraham” to a wholesale suspension of disbelief. We witness Lincoln.
Sally Field, if not heavily supervised, will normally suck all the air out of a room, but not here. As Mary Todd Lincoln, she grounds the great man’s wife in believability, while leaving lingering questions as to the true meaning of the classic phrase, “Behind every great man, there’s a woman.”
While Lincoln is not quite on par with Spielberg’s magnum opus, Schindler’s List, it’s close. Part of Spielberg’s artistry lies in the creation of atmosphere, and a heart-warming Americana is strongly palpable throughout.
John Williams’s cello-laden score and the chiaroscuro dark browns, blues, and grays evoke deep American nostalgia as surely as do the words Antietam, Ticonderoga, Fort Sumter, William Tecumseh Sherman, Gettysburg, Confederacy, and Martha Washington.
It takes a minute to downshift to a time where things moved slower, people memorized political speeches, quoted Euclid, and savored sophisticated insults. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens has a great line: “Slavery is the only insult to natural law, you fatuous nincompoop.”
In the aftermath of Lincoln, one feels like one knows Lincoln. One feels the warmth, love of humanity, and the high moral stature on display in his attempts to change history and save people. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, President Lincoln rides out on horseback to witness Civil War battlefield carnage. He is stunned and at a loss for words.
All American presidents should get astride a horse and personally go survey the carnage of their wars.
May the high moral stature, humor, and courage on display in Lincoln shine the light of hope on the path of all future American leaders. Especially now that things would appear to have come full circle with some states having recently signed, post-election, a petition to secede from the United States of America. For Lincoln-like times, it’s good to have a Lincoln-like leader.
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