Gulliver McGrath

“Lincoln” is amazing on so many levels.

Lincoln movieIt’s exactly what you hope for in a historical movie … and so very rarely get. Spielberg not only made this wonderful movie well, he made it smart. Instead of trying to cover the entire Lincoln saga or perhaps myth, he focuses on the President’s last months on earth, the period following his reelection during which he pushed through the 13th amendment that finally eliminated slavery in the United States, and ended the war. You will see more about the man Lincoln than in any previous movie or documentary about Lincoln.

The performances are universally brilliant, as you would expect. This is the Hollywood A Team where the magic comes together. Everyone is in this movie — some not even credited but you will recognize them — even if only for a tiny cameo, as if being part of this movie was an honor.

And perhaps so.  I suspect actors volunteered for the privilege of being included. The script is intelligent, elegant, somehow managing to convey both the greatness of the man and his pained humanity. There is no reason for me to go into the details of the cast, writing, history, and so on. The  review published in the New Yorker covers those bases well and you can read it here or on its original site.

“Lincoln,” was written by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg, and derived in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”

Daniel Day-Lewis has gotten the role of a lifetime and gave a performance that will probably define his career. Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader and so many others … literally too many to name … are all brilliant. There are not many big roles for women in this story, but I’d like to make a special mention of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Her performance as First Lady gives this suffering woman the first real depth and three-dimensional portrayal I’ve ever seen. Mrs. Lincoln has in cinema and history been given short shrift, labeled a crazy lady, then dismissed.

That she was not quite “right” after the loss of her son is well-documented and disseminated, but she was more than a mere wacko. She was politically savvy and highly intelligent, albeit emotionally unstable and in great pain. Perhaps a more stable, supportive mate would have been able to provide some rays of light in the dark world of President Lincoln … but given the dreadful times through which they lived and were destined to play major and tragic roles, this couple was probably doomed to misery, even had Mary Todd been the incarnation of Pollyanna.

Cover of "Team of Rivals: The Political G...

Cover via Amazon

The enormity of their personal tragedies combined with the responsibility of being the nation’s leader at this particularly desperate historical turning point would have crushed anyone. Lincoln was a giant, but also a man with a wife, children and more than his share of family drama.

The movie is mesmerizing. The way it’s shot, moving from panorama to private moments keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, you live through the battles on the floor of the House of Representatives and in the back rooms where agonizing bargains are struck as if you’ve never seen it before. It’s a painfully accurate and timely look at the real process of getting legislation passed, the viciousness, ruthlessness, chicanery and all else that goes into a process that hasn’t significantly changed over the past 150 years or more. Great cinema and a Real Politik civics lesson for young and old.

Most of the reviews I’ve read have emphasized the historical importance but failed to mention that this is a really compelling movie that makes you feel you have traveled back in time. It’s great drama with more than a dollop of wit and humor. Watch and chew your nails while Lincoln and his carefully picked team somehow push through an amendment to the constitution against staggering odds while simultaneously ending the deadliest war in American history.  It feels like you’ve never heard or seen it before. Spielberg manages to inject a level of tension and excitement that should be impossible. There are surprises, some of them very funny.

Given the subject matter, it’s amazing how often film will make you laugh. There are wonderful scenes, small and intimate, revealing of magic and myth. There are the mandatory “big scenes,” of  battlefields heaped with corpses, but most of the story takes places in small places, in sheds and basements, back rooms, parlors and hidden corners where the light is always dim. Everyone always looks cold … in the most literal sense. It’s winter without central heating and while no one mentions it (why would they? that was the way their world was), men and women alike constantly wrap themselves in blankets and shawls to fend off the chill. It makes you grateful for electricity and radiators, not to mention thermal underwear.

abraham-lincoln-tadLincoln is too tall for the world in which he lives. It can barely contain him or the sorrow he carries. He stoops, bent under the weight of impossible choices and ducks through doorways never high enough.

Go see this movie. Take your kids. Take the grandchildren. Then buy it on DVD and watch it again. Let it remind you of how painful it is to have a free nation and how heavy is the price we pay for the privilege.

This is grand entertainment, history, civics and drama wrapped in a story so insane it could only be true. To quote a familiar phrase, “you can’t make this stuff up.” You rarely get to see movies this good. It’s a treasure that will be even more appreciated in years to come.

Regardless of how many Oscars it wins … or doesn’t win … this is destined to be a classic. It can’t help it. It’s just got classic written all over it.

One more interesting note. When the movie ended and the credits started to roll, no one got up and left. No one at all. Every single person in the theater sat there and watched the credits until the screen went dark. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that happen before.

♦ See more on www.newyorker.com