I saw “Lincoln” last night: here are five takeaways…

I took in an advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” last night.  Five quick points, in no particular order:

  1.  Forget the trailer. What you’re seeing to promote the movie is more histrionics than history, and what actually unspools on the screen is sharper, smarter, headier and often much more reflective and tender than what you see in the previews.
  2. This isn’t hagiography. Spielberg, author Tony Kushner, and star Daniel Day-Lewis give us a Lincoln with warts. He’s a political opportunist and tactician. He likes the sound of his own voice, and clearly loves to tell stories (much to the annoyance of some in his cabinet.) And the man has a temper.  Big time. There is a screaming match between the President and the First Lady (a stellar Sally Field) that could be torn from the pages of Edward Albee.
  3. The movie is teeming with characters. And lots and lots and lots of talking. At times, I wanted Doc Brown to step forward with his chalkboard to explain the various divided loyalties raging on screen and, perhaps, sort out the space-time continuum.   Anyone expecting Abraham Lincoln to slay vampires will be disappointed.   Those who love to read the Congressional Record won’t be.
  4. Daniel Day-Lewis?  Just give him the Oscar now and be done with it. The man does what all good actors do: he listens. His silences are golden. And so is everything else, for that matter: the reedy voice, the awkward manner, the simmering passion, the concern and affection for his young son and troubled wife.  And the walk— the ambling, clomping kind of stooped-over walk.  He walks like a man who has plowed fields and split rails, and who is accustomed to towering over everyone around him, and who doesn’t much like it.  He walks like someone who has been carrying too much on his shoulders and needs to rest.  And he looks exactly like the man on the five-dollar bill.  The other standout who should start drafting his awards speech now: Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in a laughably (and intentionally) bad wig.
  5. “Lincoln” is, first and foremost, about telling a great story. Considering the movie’s pedigree – Spielberg, Kushner, et al —I expected the film to have An Agenda.  And yes, those looking for one will find some modern parallels. When a congressman takes to the floor and pounds the podium to condemn the notion of giving rights to slaves because it’s against “natural law,” you suspect the filmmakers have something else in mind besides just the 13th Amendment.  And maybe they do. But those moments are few and far between. With “Lincoln,” I really think they were trying to do justice to a vitally important moment in history—and the long long loooong list of advisors and academics at the end indicates that they have tried to be faithful and get it right. Whether they have will be for others to judge.  But I came away from it moved, and mightily impressed.

Finally, “Mad Men” fans take note:  Jared Harris is unrecognizable — and just terrific—as Ulysses Grant.


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