Movie Reviews

‘Lincoln’: Well done, Mr. President

By Wang DexianMovies - 20 February 2013 9:00 AM

‘Lincoln’: Well done, Mr. President

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Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The field for the Oscars this year has had a rather strong dosage of politically tinged films. Two have already graced our shores; namely ‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.

Now, the third one, with less CIA involvement, opens here and it's the one with the most nominations for the year (12 noms).

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‘Lincoln’ sees Steven Spielberg finally completing his pet project, a film he’s been wanting to make since a wee lad.

Indeed, the film had been in the works since as early as 1999 and had encountered quite a few personnel changes along; Liam Neeson was supposed to play the President and dropped out in 2010, feeling that he had passed the appropriate age to play the Great Emancipator himself.

So, with the long and winding road that the film had to take to finally getting made, the big question is, does ‘Lincoln’ deliver? The answer to that question is a complicated one, which depends entirely on your expectations on the movie.

The film starts off in January 1865, with the end of the American Civil War in sight. Lincoln is worried that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which would abolish slavery in the country, will not pass after the war due to the return of the Southern states in favour of slavery and that the courts might discard his Proclamation of Emancipation after the war has ended. Therefore, Lincoln pushes for the amendment to be passed by the end of January, hoping that the freed slaves will not have any chance of being re-enslaved.

‘Lincoln’ trailer

However, his fellow Radicals point out that even with all the Republicans on board, they would still require a few votes from the Democratic congressmen in the House of Representatives in order for the bill to pass. This scenario sets up the main conflict of the story, which along with the backdrop of several subplots, prove to show a more complicated side of Honest Abe than most people would know.

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Besides the added distractions of having to tackle the emancipation with the negotiations with the Confederate Government to end the Civil War, his family also proves to be a problem in this stage of his life. His son Robert (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) wishes to enlist in the army despite the wishes of Mary (Sally Field), his mother. Having lost a son prior, Lincoln is torn between letting his son live out his life the way he wants to and respecting the wishes of his wife.

Remarkably, Spielberg has shown considerable restraint and tact in his treatment of this project. And it proves to be quite a breath of fresh air. There's none of the trademark sentimentality that has come to define Spielberg and his films, in fact ‘Lincoln’ might be his coldest feeling film since ‘Munich’, bypassing the heartstring tugging approach for a more by-the -accounts type historical retelling.

That approach seems to be quite contagious, as even his long-time collaborators all tone down their work by a notch or two; John Williams' score is almost completely unrecognizable and even Joanna Johnston's period costumes are hardly eye-popping, which is quite the feat for a period film.

Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, and his wise decision to not write a movie spanning the entire life of Abe Lincoln pays off here as the movie could have easily degenerated into a ‘J. Edgar’ type disaster, a long movie with no clear message. Instead of a muddled biopic with no clear message, we get a rather entertaining political drama about a politician trying to do the right thing in spite of tough circumstances. It's a message that rings true even now, and certainly relevant in light of Obama's fight for gun reform.


Of course, much of the buzz has been about Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as the beloved President. And yes, he delivers. In fact, it could be argued that without him, the film could have turned out to be a relatively unremarkable movie. It's clear that he did lots of research on the man and is clearly is love with the character.

Daniel Day-Lewis almost serves as a conduit for Lincoln himself, showing exactly why he was such a beloved figure in the annals of American history. His performance seems to have elevated everyone else, resulting in two other nods in the Supporting Actor/Actress category for both Tommy Lee Jones and in particular, Sally Field. Her feisty performance as Mary, long regarded as excess baggage to Abe by many, reveals a new dimension to the First Lady and her scenes with Day-Lewis are some of the most memorable, intense and interesting exchanges in the movie.

All in all, ‘Lincoln’ is a fascinating if not odd addition to Spielberg's filmography. Much of the enjoyment of the film will depend on the viewer's interest in American politics and history (which we do have a slight appreciation for).

A very well-crafted film in many aspects, ‘Lincoln’ is also a must-see just for Daniel Day-Lewis' take on the American president. It'll certainly be hard for our brains to separate the actor from the actual President after this.

‘Lincoln’ opens in theatres 21 February 2012