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Movie review: Lincoln

The right balance

Daniel Day-Lewis has been acting in movies since the 1980s, but at no point did we look at him and think: “Wow, that guy is the spitting image of Abraham Lincoln.”

Once you’ve watched Lincoln, though, you can’t unsee it, and you wonder how you’ve managed to miss such an obvious comparison for so many years.

Lincoln is actually less about the titular character than it is about the four-month period in 1865 leading up to the passage of the 13th Constitutional Amendment. It’s a lame duck session of Congress, and Lincoln wants the House of Representatives to pass the amendment before the Civil War ends so that the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t be seen as a temporary war measure.

Loosely based on the Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, the film doesn’t showcase the idealised politics of our imaginations, but it shows how things get done in Washington, D.C.: backroom deals, appealing to people’s sensibilities, and pleading.

People who have seen the trailer usually cite two issues: the high pitch of Lincoln’s voice and how ridiculous Tommy Lee Jones looks in a wig. These are non-issues. The assumption was that Lincoln had a deep, booming voice because that’s what we think that sounds “presidential”.

There aren’t any recordings of Lincoln’s voice since he died 12 years before Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. Based on written accounts, though, his voice was higher pitched than expected and slightly shrill, though it carried well across crowds and his words really captured people’s hearts and minds.

As for the ridiculous wig, Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, who, despite being as old as dirt, wore a dark wig, so the wig is historically accurate, if not aesthetically pleasing.

Day-Lewis is simply stunning as the 16th president. He walks, talks and sounds like the real deal, right down to his lanky walk and ease in handling his stovepipe hat. The age makeup is flawless, and the performance will haunt you. The Oscar nomination is a done deal.

I had a problem with how the trailer showcased Jones as a soft-spoken guy with a gee-shucks demeanour. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Jones is practically channelling his ornery Ty Cobb character in his portrayal of Stevens.

Sally Field plays the complex Mary Todd Lincoln. She suffers from migraines and what was likely bipolar disorder, but she still manages to verbally spar with congressmen about budget matters. It’s a great performance, and although much has been written about the president’s professional accomplishments, Field’s interactions with Day-Lewis give us a peek into how he may have been in personal relationships.

The cast is packed with historically significant people played by talented, known actors, including William Bilboe (James Spader), Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley).

The movie doesn’t feel as long as its running time – mostly because you’re mesmerised by Day-Lewis’ performance. The dialogue reflects the speech patterns of the mid-1800s, so even the insults sound classy. The movie could’ve easily been half of its running time if the script had been updated with modern language, and that would’ve been a real shame. Although the dialogue is more formal, the screenwriter (Tony Kushner) managed to strike the right balance so that it’s still easy to understand. You’ll feel smarter when you walk out of the theatre.

Lincoln is heavy because of the subject matter. This is not the film to watch if you want a raucous comedy. At the same time, though, the movie actually offers up more chuckles than one would expect.

In terms of content, entertainment value, historical significance, and quality, Lincoln is head and shoulders above the competition.

by Judy –

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