"Lincoln" is the story of a vote more than it is the story of a man. Abe was America's Christ, dying for the country's original sin, but in Steven Spielberg's masterpiece biopic, which you should run out and see and then dawdle in the hallway so you can sneak back into and see again, he is more politician than martyr. Based on part of Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," about the 16th president's Cabinet, this "Lincoln" follows the final few months of his life, during which time he guided the Union to the end of the Civil War and concurrently, against reasonable expectation, dragged the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives like a broken-legged mule. The movie's climax is a series of "aye"s and "nay"s, and it plays as a true cliffhanger.
You know how this story ends because today in the United States of America the ownership and sale of human beings is no longer legal, and Lincoln is on your $5 bills and your pennies, and the first line of the Declaration of Independence, that quaint bit about all men being created equal, doesn't make you laugh with contempt. "Lincoln" describes how this country, awash in its sons' blood, began living up to its founding ideals. Between the elegant screenplay by Tony Kushner and the stunning ensemble led by Daniel Day-Lewis as the president, it feels nothing shy of living history.
Per Lewis' habit, he possesses Lincoln so as to disappear inside the man, who himself at times retreats, contemplatively, from the raging storm. The beginning of 1865 finds Lincoln weary, popular but nonetheless aware that he'd assumed nigh-dictatorial powers during the war that might not stand after its onrushing conclusion. Top of his mind was the Emancipation Proclamation, enacted in 1863 as a war measure. The 13th Amendment, ratified by the Senate, stood to make abolition permanent, if it could gain two-thirds majority passage in a divided, Republican-majority House. Audiences are sure to find the early going in "Lincoln" a bit talky (it wouldn't hurt to brush up on your Civil War history before diving into this 2½-hour tour) but the major premise is simple enough: Lincoln committed to every measure shy of outright bribe (and even that's debatable) to wangle the 20ish Democratic House votes he needed to pass the amendment. Along the way he slow-pedaled a much sought-after Confederate surrender that would end the war but undercut the tactical support for such an amendment. In this a giant man squeezed through a miniscule political seam.
If at times "Lincoln" veers into the dry, its cast rescues it. Lewis' performance is nuanced, engrossing and altogether stunning; Tommy Lee Jones' turn as (Wikipedia-worthy) abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens is nearly as remarkable. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as William Seward, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens (in a rather spooky resemblance, actually), and Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and John Hawkes all supporting — it's an embarrassment of riches. The sets are immersive; the costumes, a continual source of joy. It is in sum a tsunami of a film. To date, only three movies have won 11 Oscars apiece. "Lincoln" may give that record a run.
The film closes with Lincoln's second inaugural address, the only event in the film taken out of chronology. Along with his Gettysburg Address — delivered early on, in one of the blessedly rare overcorny moments — it bookends the film as a paean to Lincoln's astonishing abilities as a writer. Throughout, his words astound and enrapture. This was the challenge, and ultimate success, of "Lincoln," to feed lines to one of the greatest wordsmiths American politics has ever known. It bears repeat listens.
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