In Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln,” our 16th U.S. president is faced with an overwhelming moral dilemma. Is it worth holding peace hostage to free the slaves? The director spent 12 years examining this crisis of conscience, and the end result is masterful.
Shortly after Lincoln’s re-election in January 1865, he’s presented with the prospect of ending the Civil War within a week. But if he does so before ensuring that the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery) passes, he knows it will never become law. The Southern states, let alone his own Congress, will never agree to it after an armistice. It would be a hollow victory.
Lincoln, in his infinite wisdom, pulls out all the stops and plays politics ... dirty, under-handed and power-wielding politics. On his side are the secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn) and the most adamant abolitionist in the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). And in the wings, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), keeps tally of those pro and con to her husband’s righteous fight.
“Lincoln” is a cliff-hanging nail-biter in spite of the fact that the outcome is well-known. Spielberg achieves this primarily on the floor of the Senate through raucous speeches and vehement verbal altercations. His forays into the battlefields are minimal, but highly effective. In the opening scene, the camera pans the carnage at Gettysburg and, later, a gruesome trek to Appomattox shows Lincoln bereft, riding through a sea of fallen soldiers. We feel his immense pain.
Brilliantly scripted by Tony Kushner, “Lincoln” demonstrates how lyrical, insightful and often hilarious President Lincoln could be. Through amusing anecdotes and exquisite orations we glean how remarkable he was at communicating to the people he so truly loved.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of this beloved man, in itself, is destined to be historic in the annals of filmmaking. No one gets inside of his character’s skin in the manner in which this powerful actor does. A quote by Day-Lewis best sums up the enduring effect, which Lincoln had on the public: “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met.”
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