wogma rating: Add to 'must watch' list (?) - But a must-watch for true fans of cinema
Daniel Day-Lewis becomes Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic portrayal of the final few months of the life of one of the best-remembered political figures in history. Profound in its depiction of Lincoln the man and daring in its treatment of the period, the film may not appeal to everyone because of its pace. Nevertheless, it is an important film, one works because of the performances and its outstanding authentic period feel.Read more
Staying away from the constructs of a traditional biopic and concentrating on perhaps the most important months of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a riveting character study and political drama. Widely regarded as one of the greatest American Presidents in history, Abraham Lincoln was an American hero, yes, but wasn’t one to shy away from playing political games when he knew that the result would be of benefit to the nation. Spielberg’s film takes a close look at this facet of Lincoln’s personality, showing him to be a man simultaneously of impeccable ideals as well as of great political acumen, something that seems like such a rarity today.
Undeniably though, the greatest takeaway from Lincoln is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Be it his look in the film - an uncanny replica of the real Lincoln – to his every mannerism, Daniel Day-Lewis virtually disappears beneath Abraham Lincoln. His creased face, that instantly recognizable beard, that slight hunch of his shoulders subtly showing the burden that the highest office in the country brings with it, the confident use of his hands, the reassuring smile masking a pensive state of mind – here is a master class in acting from one of the very best.
The film is set in the latter half of the 19th century, during the American Civil War. The year is 1865 and President Lincoln has just been re-elected for his second term, while the nation grapples with the bloody effects of the war between the Union and the Confederacy. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United State Constitution, aimed at abolishing slavery, has been passed by the Senate and is now before the House of Representatives. A two-thirds majority is required for it to be passed in the House, but Lincoln’s Republican Party has only slightly over half of the number they require; the rest have to be obtained by winning over Democrats to vote in favour of the Amendment. In the tense political climate, the will and ability of Abraham Lincoln is tested to the full.
What is remarkable about the film is how characters who are against the Thirteenth Amendment openly proclaim that all men aren’t created equal, how certain races are superior to others and how the ‘coloured people’ are meant to serve as slaves to the White Man. The dangerous, politically incorrect ‘N’ words are used freely, as it was in the period when the film is set. Seeing as how, even today, Indian cinema and audiences are subjected to naïve political censorship based on the whims of fanatical groups and spineless political parties, it is heartening to see a mature film-going audience that understands that one of the purposes of cinema is to inform as well, and how is one supposed to inform if one isn’t permitted to show the truth as it happened?
The look of the film is a plus; the period feel is captured beautifully through the art direction and production design. Also, other than the gargantuan effort by Daniel Day-Lewis, there are other performances in the film that stand out as well, notably that of Tommy Lee Jones as caustic Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and David Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do well in their roles as Mary Todd Lincoln and Robert Lincoln (Lincoln’s wife and oldest son, respectively) though one wishes that they had larger roles to play.
Having said that, Lincoln isn’t for everyone. The film isn’t a collection of highlights of Lincoln’s career. It is, instead, a deeply rooted study of one particular phase that acted as a test of character for President Lincoln. It takes its time to unfold, because it is, almost at all times, long scenes of groups of men sitting together and talking. But that is probably how politics ‘happens’ in real life as well. The President himself often strays off course to deliver an anecdote invariably tinged with humour before making the point that he wants to. The film isn’t slow, because something is always happening. But what is happening isn’t action-filled; it is human minds at work. Thus, clocking in at two and a half hours, there will certainly be those who find the film boring.
Lincoln isn’t the kind of film that will find universal appeal amongst theater-going audiences in India. But it will certainly appeal to those who are fascinated by history in general and by the character study of historical figures in particular. And for those who want a ‘fun’ film on Lincoln, there is always Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.
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