Lincoln ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Lincoln ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Lincoln, the new movie directed by Steven Spielberg, is a talky, though engaging, account of the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. When the movie begins, Lincoln has just been re-elected to a second term as president. The Civil War has been raging for four years and politicians in Washington are wondering how it can be brought to an end. Can there be a negotiated peace with the South? Will the South surrender? It seems the biggest problem is what to do about the four million slaves who will suddenly be free citizens when the war ends. How can they be assimilated into society?

Lincoln desperately wants Congress to pass the anti-slavery Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which, he believes, will settle the question of slavery once and for all. Pushing the amendment through Congress is politically risky. The Southern states that seceded want to be readmitted to the Union when the war is over, but they will do whatever they can to prevent passage of the Amendment. Lincoln’s Republican Party controls the House of Representatives (it seems the bill has already passed the Senate), but the Amendment needs a two-thirds majority to pass, so it needs support from the opposition party. Much of the action of the movie is taken up with the political wrangling that goes on behind the scenes to coerce recalcitrant members of Congress to vote for the Amendment. Some of them lack the courage to support it when they know their constituents back home are opposed. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln with a folksy charm and humility, and he is by far the best thing about the movie. Despite holding an office that is “clothed in immense power,” there is nothing grandiose or swell about him. He has a “common” touch and the people, both black and white, love him for it. It seems he always has time for everybody, no matter how insignificant. He loves telling stories and is not above using ungrammatical English, which is altogether in keeping with his character.

The war takes a tremendous personal toll on Lincoln. (In a scene that takes place toward the end of the war, Ulysses S. Grant tells Lincoln that in the last year he has seen him age ten years.) In addition to dealing with the immense problems the country faces, he has family problems that he must contend with. His oldest son, Robert, wants to enlist (against both parents’ wishes), even though the war is about over. His unhappy wife (played by Sally Field) is still grieving the loss of a son, Willie, three years earlier, and is certain that Robert will be killed if he becomes a soldier. She has terrible headaches and she never lets Abe forget how she much she despises being the wife of the president and living in “this awful house.”

Lincoln is rich in period detail, a vivid recreation of a fascinating chapter in American history when the country was at a crossroads. One unwise or miscalculated decision could have meant the end of the Union. The country was fortunate to have a true leader at the helm, one who was up to the task. He brought the country through the war, intact, though it cost him his life.

Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp

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