Review of "Lincoln (DVD)"

published 13/03/2013 | afy9mab
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Pro Phenomenal performances, solid writing and great production values.
Cons Feels like one long history lesson, which requires further study to appreciate fully.
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"Lincoln the Dots"

In the last four months of his life, Abraham Lincoln steers his country through a turbulent period. As the American Civil War rages on, causing destruction and death on both sides, Lincoln seeks to end slavery by pushing the 13th Amendment through Congress. But he must contend with opposition across the political spectrum.

If “Lincoln” was a stick of rock, it would have the word “quality” running all the way through it. Steven Spielberg’s latest production is a beautifully realised period piece that is factually correct, well cast and acted and rammed to the gunnels with spot-in period detail. It doesn’t candy-coat the lengths the titular character went to in order to pass the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution and doesn’t shy away from the devastating effects of the Civil War. Yet I couldn’t fall in love with it.

The production design is gorgeous. The sets and costumes are both highly detailed and historically accurate. So you get the impression of a complete, imperfect world. There is no attempt to glamorise the period – the streets are almost as muddy as the battlefields and the characters are wrapped up in so many layers that you’re in no doubt that they might otherwise freeze. The war is presented as desperate, deadly and prolonged. In the opening scene we see Union soldiers drowning their Confederate opponents in flooded shell holes and there is also a scene wherein an entire city is razed to the ground. However, most of the film takes place in cramped, smoky rooms as the characters support or oppose the new legislation. The production is unashamedly talky and the majority of the big battles are wars of words as different parties argue their case, often bandying inventive insults. The legal intricacies of both the new legislation and brokering a peace deal are explored in depth. Many of the scenes incorporate the clear ticking of clocks in the background, adding to the sense of urgency. So if legislative dramas are your thing, or if you have a particular interest in American history, this will seem like manna from heaven. Personally I found it rather heavy going. Although I already knew the basics of the story, I struggled to keep up as dozens of new characters were introduced without much explanation of who they were or what their importance was.

The performances are fantastic across the board and the rhetoric is interspersed with comic asides featuring cynical lobbyist W N Bilbo and encounters with Lincoln’s damaged but defiant wife. But there are a lot of big themes, a great number of important events and lots and lots of speeches. And towards the end it dips into a kind of tragic hero-worship. So the whole thing ended up feeling rather worthy. And the whopping hundred-and-fifty minute running-time, although well-filled, felt a bit indulgent.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner is based on the factual book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which may explain why so much of the narrative feels factually correct, but rather dry. It also pre-supposes intimate knowledge of the period and people in question, as characters are introduced at a rate of knots throughout, without any explanation of who they are or what role they play in government. So it may be hard for non-US citizens to follow at times. But essentially, as the American Civil War winds to a close, Lincoln tries to change the Constitution to ban slavery forever from the United States. He must do so before the conclusion of the war, for if he doesn’t, the returning southern states will stop it before it can become law. Therefore the president must obtain enough votes from Congress before peace is declared and it is too late. Yet the president is torn because the sooner peace comes, the more lives will be saved. But so-called ‘Honest Abe’ isn’t above buying votes or purposely delaying a deputation from the south, who are ready to negotiate an end to hostilities. On top of this, Lincoln has family troubles – a wife prone to depression and a son determined to go to war.

The characterisation is solid throughout. It would be easy to present Abraham Lincoln as a man-shaped myth. But instead he comes across as a man driven by principle, but nonetheless open to unscrupulous tactics as a means to an end. He is a devoted family man, who still struggles with his wife’s mood swings and his eldest son’s stubbornness. Mary Todd Lincoln is emotionally fragile, but has a measure of self-knowledge, worrying that she will be remembered only as the president’s unstable wife. Secretary of State William Seward feels like a professional naysayer, who raises objections to Lincoln’s plans, if only to underline the problems in passing the legislation. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens is a committed abolitionist, who speaks his mind and baits his opponents. His greatest rival is fellow Congressman Fernando Wood, whose pro-slavery rhetoric antagonises Stevens on a regular basis. Shameless lobbyists W N Bilbo and Robert Latham provide comic relief, as they go to great lengths to secure votes. Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert is driven by his desire to make a difference, while many other members of Congress fight on opposing sides of the argument. The dialogue is formal, flowery and complex, but it suits the period and the subject matter.

Daniel Day-Lewis puts in a phenomenal performance in the title role. In his hands, Lincoln is a noble figure without being either a cipher for man’s innate goodness or a caricature. Instead he comes across as a man driven by his principles rather than sentiment. Though determined, he is also measured and aware of the significance of his actions. Not only that, but he is also a devoted family man, struggling to balance his career and home-life. Sally Field is warm and supportive as Mary Tood Lincoln, in spite of being highly-strung and frequently on edge. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens as a radical-thinking, plain-speaking, zealous man, who is brusque and apologises to no-one for his beliefs. It would be easy to make him unpalatable, but Jones renders him human and even weirdly likeable. David Strathairn plays devil’s advocate as Secretary of State William Seward, while Lee Pace piles on the rhetoric as political agitator and naysayer Fernando Wood. Walton Goggins panics as cowardly congressman Clay Hawkins, while James Spader and John Hawkes make a solid, often comic duo as shady lobbyists W N Bilbo and Robert Latham. Jospeh Gordon-Levitt is driven as Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, while Jared Harris is surprisingly believable as Ulysses S Grant.

The original music by John Williams is orchestral in nature and features lots of arrangements of warm brass, strings and piano that ground the action. The music follows the lead of the narrative and becomes tense when time is running out. It is playful when Latham and Bilbo are fishing for votes, using a folksy fiddle to emphasise their unorthodox methods. And there are the usual melancholy motifs for the more emotive moments. It fits the production and lives up to the reputation of the composer’s previous work.

My overall impression of “Lincoln” is that of a lovingly-crafted, highly detailed but overlong history lesson. The direction is great, the writing historically accurate and the performances sublime. But, to be honest, I found it rather dry and it left me strangely unmoved. I think the problem was that it required greater knowledge of the events and the people that played a part in it than I have. I suspect it will play better to an American audience, whose grasp of their nation’s history will presumably be stronger. Although I admired the workmanship, I found the substance of the production heavy going. If you’re really interested in American history, or you’re a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis, it might be worth a go. But you might want to brush up on the subject matter before watching it.

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Comments on this review

  • Kukana published 27/06/2013
    Sounds like there a lot of plus points, but probably not for me.
  • 80smusicreviewer published 11/04/2013
    Well reviewed. E.
  • supersonic75 published 24/03/2013
    E x
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Product Information : Lincoln (DVD)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

DVD Region: DVD

Video Category: Feature Film

Director(s) (Last name, First name): Spielberg, Steven

Classification: 12 years and over

Production Year: 2012


Listed on Ciao since: 04/03/2013