'Lincoln' delivers classic performance

atomictown.comNovember 18, 2012 

Man, I'm looking forward to retirement.

Every Friday, I attend the first morning matinee, and it is just filled with senior citizens. Imagine that, being able to just wake up every Friday and go to the movies without a care in the world, except for how every one of your major organs is functioning. Wait, I've got that now. Well, I get tired when I get up that early. I can only assume that goes away when you get old.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

But not all audiences are created equal. Some are much older than others. The audience for Lincoln was perhaps the oldest I've ever seen. Did the elderly flock to the theater in such numbers because they couldn't wait to see their childhood depicted on the silver screen? Or is it simply that they've been around long enough to know the arrival of a good movie when they see it? Heck, I don't know. I'm not a reporter. But in this reporter's opinion, they're on to something, because Lincoln is pretty great.

In early 1865, there are signs the Civil War is winding down. It should be a blessing. But President Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) fears that his wartime Emancipation Proclamation will be struck down in times of peace.

To maneuver around that, he rushes to pass the 13th Amendment banning slavery, a measure which can only pass while the South has no say in government. But even among the Union, the amendment is extremely controversial. To have a shot at passage, Lincoln will have to try every trick in the book.

What with the title and all, you'd think Lincoln would be about Lincoln, but you'd be wrong. Sort of. You would be more right if you assumed the movie is about Lincoln as personified by his belief in and efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. I think they should have called this movie Legislation!. The best titles are always literal. Like director Steven Spielberg's earlier blockbuster, The Shark Who Made Everyone Scared.

Anyway, I can see this tight slice of Lincoln's life being divisive, but I thought it was a smart move. I already know the story of the Civil War, where Civil fought Civil until Civil emerged victorious. I wasn't so aware of the legal struggle to get slavery banned. Writer Tony Kushner's script sometimes feels a little too pleased to dish up its stories of bribes, begging and threats to secure votes, but for the most part, he does a knockout job dramatizing something that could have wound up as 19th century C-SPAN, a concept so boring that even typing the words just put me to sleep for the last five hours.

Instead, it's riveting. Much of this has to do with Day-Lewis' incredible turn as Lincoln, a performance that both humanizes and elevates him. He's a man of quiet power and wry humor, prone to telling folksy yarns to make a point, but unyielding in his desire to see his will made into law. Man, is Day-Lewis good.

Meanwhile, Spielberg's direction is as stately and confident as ever, and Kushner's dialogue is like PG-13 Deadwood. That's meant to be a compliment, you San Francisco [redacted]. Not all the characters are nearly as well-drawn as Lincoln--Mary Todd's a bit uneven, and their sons aren't all that interesting--but others, like hotblooded abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), pop to life as strongly as Lincoln.

Just like our great Union, I'm torn about Lincoln. Sometimes I think it's great, sometimes I think it's just quite good--for instance, after such a personal look at the man, the ending feels like something out of a history video. Whether or not the rest of the movie matches up, Lincoln is worth it for the man at its center.

Grade: A-

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and elsewhere.

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