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On movies: Spielberg's 'Lincoln' turns icon into a man

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2012 - The country is bitterly divided. The two parties, Republicans and Democrats, are polarized and polarizing. And the president’s priorities seem vastly out of touch with political reality and almost impossible to achieve.

That scenario, as familiar as the daily headlines, is at the heart of “Lincoln,” the new movie by Steven Spielberg -- and may be one reason it feels so urgent, relevant and contemporary.

Still, even if the country weren’t coming off of what seems like an eternity of campaigning, “Lincoln” would still command our attention. A towering achievement for Spielberg, “Lincoln” also boasts a bravura performance by Daniel Day-Lewis; a literate, insightful script by Tony Kushner that manages to sound of its time and place without being stilted or artificial; and evocative cinematograpy by Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer.

Far from being a conventional biopic, “Lincoln” forgoes tales of log cabins or folksy debates. Instead it focuses in with laser sharpness on President Abraham Lincoln’s determination in the midst of the Civil War to pass the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. A lawyer, Lincoln knew that the Emancipation Proclamation would not be sufficient, legally, to accomplish that great task. In structuring the film around this episode, the film makes clear that it was slavery -- not states’ rights -- that was the driving motivation behind the war.

Yes, Lincoln staked out the moral high ground, insisting with raised voice that the 13th amendment had to be passed “now, now, now.” But, a canny vote counter, Lincoln was also willing to travel the low road to get there.

For Spielberg (and Lincoln himself), politics is not two and a half hours of lofty, and boring, oratory. It’s a whirlwind of nitty-gritty wheeling and dealing, sometimes involving raging and raucous compromises. Nowhere is that better illustrated than by Thaddeus Stevens, a dedicated, lifelong abolitionist played spectacularly by Tommy Lee Jones, who struggles to hold back his more radical views on racial equality to win moderates to the amendment.

For comic relief, a seedy trio (including a rotund James Spader and “The Sessions” John Hawkes) tries to round up 20 reluctant Democrats to vote for the amendment by promising low-level patronage jobs. (It is a little weird to see Walton Goggins, Boyd Crowder in “Justified,” and Michael Stuhlbarg, Arnold Rothstein in “Boardwalk Empire,” play sniveling, cowardly legislators.)

The triumph of “Lincoln,” though, is turning a national icon into a flesh-and-blood man. Spielberg does that in part by going beyond the political realm to show Lincoln’s troubled relationships with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), whose grief at the loss of a son allows no consolation, and his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who resents his parents’ refusal to allow him to enlist.

But the key to Lincoln’s humanity is Day-Lewis’ masterful performance. Certainly the actor’s craggy features are perfect for the part. But Day-Lewis finds in Lincoln a man of sly humor and serious purpose, a determined leader but at sea with his family, a modest man with noble aspirations. Day-Lewis so fully inhabits his creation that it no longer seems like acting. He is Lincoln.

It wouldn’t be a Spielberg film if there weren’t the occasional foray into sentimentality. There are a couple of such moments (recitations of the Gettysburg address and the 13th amendment) when heart strings will surely be tugged. But they are brief and to the point: Lincoln’s words and actions forever shaped the lives of ordinary Americans.

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.

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