Making History, Then and Now
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
Steven Spielberg is the master of revealing iconic characters on film. Think back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, where, during the opening credits of the film, Indiana Jones' face isn't revealed until he prevents a man from shooting him with the crack of his whip. Or how about Quint's scratch across the chalkboard introduction in Jaws? And I'm sure we all remember the fate of the unlucky goat in Jurassic Park, when the Tyrannosaurus Rex rears his ugly head. Spielberg has a gift for creating memorable imagery that resonates with us years after we've seen our favorite film of his. That talent of revealing memorable characters is echoed once again in his latest film, Lincoln.
The opening scene involves two African American soldiers talking to Lincoln (the perfectly casted Daniel Day-Lewis) about the hardships they continue to face as the Civil War rages on. The camera, focused on these two men, pulls back ever so slowly to show us Lincoln, giving him an almost heroic glow and certainly showing us that were looking at one of the most important figures in our nation's history.
More successfully than any other portrayal of this famous president, Day-Lewis brings humanity to a character that could have very easily been played as an over-the-top idealist. What he and Spielberg pull off in this film is nothing short of amazing. We see Lincoln portrayed as not only a president, but a husband, father, politician and, in some scenes, a normal, everyday guy who loves telling stories. We're familiar with Lincoln's success in creating the Thirteenth Amendment, and while much has been written about him, many will be surprised to see what Day-Lewis brings to the role.
For starters, the voice Day-Lewis created is much higher than previous portrayals of the character, which, as history tells us is probably the closest to how Lincoln actually sounded. In addition, we see his estranged relationship with his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as the result of his dedication to politics. Furthermore, his wife, Mary (Sally Field, doing some of her best work in years), still distraught over the death of one of their son's, is more of a burden to the president, even though he tries to be as supportive as he can. In other scenes, we see Lincoln at his best, as he does everything within his power (bribery, persuasion, etc.) to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed in The House of Representatives.
The bulk of the film takes place during those proceedings, which has resulted in the unfair criticism by some that the film as being just a bunch of people talking. The script, from playwright Tony Kushner, is dialogue-heavy and sharp-witted, which somehow turns people off from seeing the film. Take it from me: I'm someone who could not be less interested in politics and I loved Lincoln. For those who know me, and who enjoy reading my work, that should mean a lot.
Because of what he does with the camera, Spielberg is the perfect choice to keep Kushner's dialogue entertaining and informative. We feel like we're a part of the political process in ways that, in recent years, many have forgotten about. This is how our country works and how major events within our government are shaped. Spielberg and Kushner invite us in and never talk down to the audience, nor is anything that any character says difficult for the less politically-savvy people like myself to comprehend.
Yet, if you still feel like you just cannot relate to the material, or if it's a film that just doesn't interest you, alas, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens spends most of the movie yelling at those who believe the color of one's skin somehow makes them less than those with white skin. Jones is terrific as Stevens, bringing out the comedy in ridiculing others and, like Day-Lewis, showing the human side to a man who was seen as a radical for his belief in equality.
If Lincoln isn't a movie you want to see, it's a movie that you should see. It's easily the best film Spielberg has made in years and a reminder of why he's considered one of the greatest directors of our time.