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Witness to History: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Movie Review

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Lincoln: A Look at Our Sixteenth President and The Story Behind the Thirteenth Amendment

Lincoln, Movie Review

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln makes the story of Abraham Lincoln’s last months in office and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment more interesting and entertaining than any history book or lecture ever could. Filled with drama, humor, and history, the film, which was directed and produced by Spielberg and stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, has been receiving rave reviews and drawing hoards of people to theaters, and with good reason. A brilliant hybrid of a documentary and a feature film, Lincoln appeals to a broad audience and is both educational and entertaining: a powerful combination.

Shortly after his re-election and in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln is determined to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery in America and, hopefully, reunite the country and end the devastating war. Met with some resistance, Lincoln and his cohorts attempt to convince various members of the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the amendment. Meanwhile, Lincoln deals with various personal issues with his wife, who is struggling with the death of their son during the war, and his two remaining sons, one determined to join the army and the other a young, innocent child.

Focused on Lincoln’s effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln is―not surprisingly―a heavily political film. And, at two hours and thirty minutes, it is a substantial film as well. There are times when it seems that the arguing between the wrinkly, bearded men who all seem to look alike will never end. Unless you’ve brushed up on your American history lately, there is a good chance you may not entirely understand what exactly is being argued about. However, there are many positive qualities about the film that far outweigh its occasionally slow pace and heavily historical content.

One of the films most notable strengths is its use of various cinematic genres. There is action―various battle scenes are scattered throughout the movie, depicting the intense brutality of the civil war and the immense destruction and loss of human life that it caused. There is comedy―though the film is quite dark and somber, there is comic relief in a variety of forms that serves to make Lincoln much more pleasant to watch. There is love―Lincoln’s complicated relationship with his wife and his bond with his children are integral parts of his personal life that are revealed within the film. And there is drama, suspense, political commentary, history and a substantial amount of biographical information within Lincoln as well, making it a film that is both complex and broadly appealing.

Another of Lincoln’s strengths is Lincoln’s characterization and the careful, intricate way in which it is developed throughout the film. Stark contrast between scenes keeps the film interesting while highlighting Lincoln’s gentle nature. For instance, as the film approaches its climax, Lincoln sits calmly and quietly at home with his youngest son while members of the House argue fervently over whether to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln’s gentle manner is accentuated when juxtaposed against the turmoil of politics and war that surrounded him during his presidency.

Lincoln’s numerous monologues also serve to develop his characterization. Each one well articulated, thought-provoking, and passionate, Lincoln’s orations indicate that he was an incredibly intelligent, considerate, and thoughtful man. Despite his gentleness, Lincoln is determined to fight for what he believes in and refuses to back down even in the face of strong opposition. Though unafraid to voice his opinion, he is not a tyrant. His power does not make him haughty or arrogant. As Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) astutely states, “No one’s ever been loved so much by the people.” Lincoln’s powerful yet mild demeanor makes him an incredibly likable character, and his characterization adds to the appeal of the film.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)Brief glimpses into Lincoln’s personal life further deepen the characterization of the protagonist, and make Lincoln much more than a political documentary about the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment and the abolition of slavery. While the balance between personal and political biography within Lincoln would have been a bit more comfortable if slightly more of Lincoln’s personal life had been included in the film, the peeks into his family life are refreshing and intriguing. Lincoln’s interactions with his wife and his sons reveal his life as a husband and a father, and make him a more relatable character. His struggle to balance his responsibilities as a family man with his duties as president makes Lincoln seem very human, an appealing characteristic, especially in a powerful figure.

None of this complex character development would have been possible without Daniel Day-Lewis’s incredible acting and portrayal of Lincoln. He clearly embodies Lincoln’s complex persona. Everything from the president’s lanky appearance and shuffling stride to his slow, pensive way of speaking was replicated in Day-Lewis’s performance. He made Lincoln incredibly likable, and was strong in the forceful, passionate political scenes, the casual, humorous moments, and in the more intimate, personal encounters. Day-Lewis’s down-to-earth personification of Lincoln and his quirks made the historical figure familiar and accessible to the audience. He portrays the president as the influential, courageous and determined commander in chief Lincoln is regarded as in history books, yet exposes Lincoln’s lesser-known personality and character in a way that makes him amiable and much more than just an important historical figure.

As a whole, Lincoln is a powerful film that shows, not tells, the history of the Thirteenth Amendment and carefully develops Lincoln’s character in a way that no textbook ever could. The outstanding acting, the mixture of genres, and the intricate construction of Lincoln’s persona are notable aspects of the film that keep audiences interested despite the film’s heavy political and historical nature. Though the ending of the film is a bit disappointing, abrupt and unoriginal, the movie is generally strong. Informative and educational yet entertaining, Lincoln is a unique film that is well worth watching.

Jessica Venezia is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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