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Lincoln (2012)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Lucky for us, Steven Spielberg’s holiday offering for 2012, Lincoln, is much more worthy than last year’s War Horse. This time around, the single best part of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the man, in which many will say that DDL inhabits Lincoln. It’s true. And it’s a primary reason why the film works as a smart, folksy, high stakes story of political maneuvering, laced with an intimate personal backstory.

The American Civil War is raging; maybe the tide is turning in the Union’s favor, and maybe the South is willing to negotiate. Lincoln has issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but there are questions about its legality. A proposed Constitutional amendment would codify and extend the Proclamation, yet past votes on similar measures have failed, just as it appears that the current proposal would if pushed to a vote. Lincoln is hugely popular and has just won re-election, but major factions have dug in hard for the fight over an amendment. Republicans favor it, but they want a negotiated peace first. However, a negotiated peace might reduce the sense of urgency for an amendment, as well as complicate the process. Democrats are dead set against an amendment, thinking that African-Americans are inferior. Lincoln has a choice: Push for a vote now or wait to see if there is a better time later. The only certain thing is that a vote now will require all the political skill Lincoln can muster. Running time: 150 min.

As one of the USA’s most beloved presidents, it is easy to attribute a magical light of sainthood to Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, this may be quite appropriate, but before placing the man on that pedestal, one must wrestle with numerous intricate questions. The strength of Lincoln is that it lays out some of these questions richly before us. Where is the line between upstanding political negotiation and corrupt political trading? Can a political aim turn a corruptive descent into something laudable? Or, is it laudable only to hold and demand the purist of moral positions? The man Lincoln was unarguably a great leader, and the film, by putting such leadership in context, gives us an opportunity to consider the place for shades of grey in a world we wish were black and white.

For Christians, the film asks another key question: Does Lincoln’s approach bear a relation to Jesus’ parable of the shrewd servant (Luke 16:1-9) and His advice to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16)? This is perhaps one of Jesus' more troubling parables and, though Lincoln is no dishonest servant, the film makes it hard to paint his political dealings white.

As noted above, Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln is the strongest filmcraft element in Lincoln. Joining him are Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn, among others, who also deliver key characters quite well. Screenwriter Tony Kushner said, in an article in Smithsonian magazine, "You could make a very long miniseries out of any week Lincoln occupied the White House." Kushner did quite well on the political aspects of the screenplay and also on most of Lincoln's family life, though some of his personal life comes off as clich├ęd. Similarly, Spielberg often caters to the broad public's desire for schmaltzy moments in a film, but thankfully such moments are not frequent or overpowering in this film.

Overall, Lincoln is a quite good film that is worth the time spent. There is, of course, oh so much more to learn about the man, yet this slice of his life is engaging and valuable.

Scenes of Civil War battlefields, battles, and aftermaths of battles are intense, as is a scene with blood and a graphic depiction of body parts. Occasional strong language. Verbal sparring is also intense at times, in both political and personal contexts.

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Screenplay: Tony Kushner, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals
  • Leads: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes
  • Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
  • Music: John Williams

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