Saturday, February 23, 2013


Walking Into History

Daniel Day-Lewis is primed for another Best Actor Oscar, and the truth is it's not hard to see why, and he doesn't become the 16th President of the United States, but transforms into him, disappearing completely and immersing himself into the role. And yes that voice, somehow made the entire illusion complete, and it's hard to see how any other actor could top his effort to play Abe Lincoln, given that Day-Lewis probably gave us the most definitive interpretation to date, despite the Vampire Hunter parallel universe version being one of the most fun.

And with Steven Spielberg at the helm as director, quality is assured and stamped on every intricately crafted scene, that none go wasted, and will totally engage you for more than 2.5 hours, even if most of what's transpiring on screen happen to be plenty of politicking amongst politicians of the day. And you know it's done right when something so steep in one's country history, can be compelling to others who are largely at best remotely aware of the many milestone events, beginning from Lincoln's second term in office, with the American Civil War into its fourth year, and Lincoln pushing hard for the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution to abolish slavery.

Adapted in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln the movie fights its narrative battle on these two fronts, which is probably what has framed the Lincoln administration and set the president in his course in United States history. Those looking toward having violent scenes of war that Spielberg is capable of creating, may be a tad disappointed, though compensated with the opening scene after a short prologue, that had a bloodbath of a battle between the Unions and the Confederates, which highlighted the urgency of the current administration to seek peace rather than to have American kill American by the thousands.

But on the same agenda is the table to abolish slavery, and here, Lincoln and his trusted aides and advisers, such as State Secretary William Seward (David Strathairn) have to draw upon their experience in policies, compromises, sheer gut and will, and personal convictions, to fight not only what's on the battlefront, but something more challenging against lawmakers, to try and turn the tide by doing almost whatever it takes to obtain votes for their cause. It's easy to turn these scenes into boring, paint-watching where rhetoric after rhetoric get blasted from one side to the other, but under Spielberg's execution, these scenes of cajoling, influencing and encouragement, highlights the frailness of a newly formed democracy, and their emphasis to seek reunification of sorts amongst a country divided by war, and a war against one's way of life.

If there's a small quibble, it is perhaps this screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is relatively void Lincoln's personal life, save for a couple of scenes in private between him and his wife Mary (Sally Field) where they bicker a lot, and through heated conversation we learn a little bit more about their married past, and those with his sons Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the latter finding it hard to step out of his big man's shadow, and finding opposition when wanting to join the many other sons who decided to leave family to take up arms for their cause. Supporting characters were also fairly one-dimensional save for Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, leaving the spotlight firmly on the titular president and his fight for just cause.

It's little surprise then to find that Lincoln had emerged as a frontrunner with the number of nominations chalked up for this season's Oscars. With Spielberg and his frequent collaborators in John Williams providing music, Michael Kahn tightly editing this, and lensed by Janusz Kaminski, this is one solid biography of an American President that's befitting of the man, full of intricate details and crafted with love in every aspect of its production values, and probably will set the bar with which how presidential biographies in future could be benchmarked against. A definite recommendation, even if one knows what the outcome would be, since Daniel Day-Lewis gives a one of a kind performance here, as always.

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