Film review: Lincoln

By Matthew Parkinson

If the film Lincoln is to be believed, the only thing Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, cared about in the months leading up to his assassination was abolishing slavery. Throughout the entire film, this is the only thing that guides him. There’s a civil war going on, there are family matters he has to deal with and, of course, there’s a country he needs to lead — yet slavery is the only thing on his mind. It’s tough to believe that this is the only thing he thought or cared about, and it would have been nice if he was presented as someone a little more complicated, as he surely was.

Lincoln is no biopic — it doesn’t try very hard to make things historically accurate. Instead, the film wishes to bring us a moderately thrilling account of how one man was able to manipulate his will into the constitution. Lincoln needed a two-thirds majority vote in order to get the 13th amendment passed and, considering his party only had a slight majority, some convincing and bribing had to occur. An Ocean’s Eleven style recruiting happens, in which Lincoln attempts to convince other congressmen to vote the way he wants.

Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is not a terribly complex character. He’s fun to watch and is a great storyteller, but he only has a single thing driving him throughout the film. This is no fault of Day-Lewis, who performs outstandingly — he perfectly embodies the role of Lincoln, and it is easy to forget that the person on screen is merely an actor. Nobody is as good at this kind of method acting as Day-Lewis and, while he wasn’t director Steven Spielberg’s first choice for the role — that honour goes to Liam Neeson — he is the perfect actor for the job. As a result of his performance, Lincoln manages to get away with quite a bit. Its finale is predictable, but it still manages to send chills down your spine with its more suspenseful moments.

Day-Lewis will most likely be getting an Academy Award nomination for his role, but he is far from the only actor in Lincoln who deserves an Oscar. The brilliant Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman whose entire life has been dedicated to equality for all races. He’s on Lincoln’s side in this matter, serving as one of his closest allies. Jones is hilarious in the role, providing much comic relief. Thankfully, though, he is not dedicated strictly to that purpose — while he’s funny, his lines are often so sharp and poignant that they will cause audiences to laugh and think in equal measure. Much of his time is dedicated to belittling the opposition, who are unfortunately presented as one-dimensional characters that are completely wrong and without morals.

Spielberg does a good job of taking the audience back in time for all 150 minutes of Lincoln — audiences will feel fully immersed in the world of mid-1800s America. It’s not just a simple costume drama — it’s a full-blown reenactment of what could have happened. The film might not be entirely truthful but, because of the slick and meticulous directing and some incredible performances, it can make you believe its fictitious accounts.

Lincoln rarely goes wrong and, when it does, it often tends not to matter. The aforementioned lack of believable motivation is offset but how strong Day-Lewis’s performance is. The overly long running time is hardly a problem because of how immersive the film’s world is. It’s historically predictable, but still manages to make the skin crawl with its more thrilling moments. It winds up not mattering whether or not you know if Lincoln gets his way. While it may not be a biopic, it at least doesn’t try to rewrite American history.

Steven Spielberg is a very good storyteller, and Lincoln’s story of manipulation and determination is a story worth hearing. Whether you see the film to be immersed in the 19th century setting, or 
to see a couple of the performances that are sure to generate significant award buzz, you’ll have a hard time being disappointed with Lincoln. This is a movie that should be shown in high school classrooms — it gets people interested and inspired, and might just convince them to look more deeply into President Lincoln’s life.

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