Film Review: “Lincoln”

Steven Spielberg manages to ignore his liberal bias and craft a beautiful film about the 16th President's efforts to abolish slavery.

“We are a conservative anti-slavery party.” One of the Republican Party’s founders Francis Preston Blair says to President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s biopic of the first Republican president. Despite Blair’s fears that Lincoln was appeasing “radicals” in the party (people who held such “radical” views like, you know, black Americans were equal human beings to white Americans), it was an adequate description of Lincoln’s personal views. The film accurately portrays that Lincoln was perhaps a little too “conservative” (using it in the purest sense of the word, not in the ideological definition) when it came to slavery and the rights of African Americans and we don’t get into why he held some of the antiquated views (being “unsure” on the question of whether or not he wanted blacks in the US and assuring his wife’s African American aide that he “will get used to them”, and not supporting suffrage for all African Americans) that he did as Lincoln never expressed his reasoning. That said it’s foolish to expect Lincoln to have held our more enlightened (on issues of race, at least) 21st century views  in the 19th century, this is the mistake liberals make when they critique Lincoln. We can be grateful that Lincoln at least saw slavery as a blight on our nation’s moral fiber, a direct violation of the principles that founded this nation and that he fought like hell to make sure that it’s passage was assured appealing to more reasonable Democrats.

While it’s never said outright, Lincoln and the Republicans argument against slavery is that it violates our founding principles. Slavery was never a natural fit for our country, which is why we nearly split in large part over the issue. Lincoln has a conversation with morse code operators about “self-evident” rights, a clear reference to the Declaration of Independence. One of the Democrats asks Rep. Thaddeus Stephens, leader of the “radical Republicans”, whether he believes the preamble of the declaration is meant to be “literal” and whether he believes blacks are equal to whites. Stephens doesn’t take a principled stand on the issue (it would have been very easy for Spielberg to “Hollywood-ize” it and have him do it), but makes a political calculation that eases concerns of the Democrats on the fence and Republicans uneasy about change. Modern liberals try to latch on to figures like Lincoln and Stephens, but both make it clear their argument against slavery is less about economic equality and government activism (both tennets of the modern left) as it is about liberty and freedom.

For this, Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner (another liberal) deserve great praise for their film. It would have been easy for them to twist history, to add a jab at modern Republicans, but they don’t do this. They make a historical film that captures one of the great moments of our nation’s history. The film itself is beautiful, the dark cinematography giving the ominous feeling of war, even if we see very little of it on the screen. Despite being unmercilessly  wonky, the film’s pacing is brisk mostly because of the performances in the film, which cannot earn enough praise.

Tommy Lee Jones is a stand-out as that ol’ “radical Republican” Thaddeus Stephens. Jones not only delivers a powerful performance that reminds us that sometimes it takes someone unpolished and unrefined to get things done, he seems like he is having a blast playing the character. Jones also manages to pull off a rural 19th century Pennsylvanian very well, hiding his Texan accent as well as he can, though it slipping out a little bit works well for the character. Sally Field is very good as fragile First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary says in the film that people will remember Abe as a “good man” and his wife as “crazy”. While Field’s performance does show that side of her, there is also a good natured pleasantness that comes through of her. David Strathairn and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also give great performances as Secretary of State William Seward and Robert Lincoln, the eldest son of the president. James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Lee Pace also give great performances in the film. Spader in particular was a lot of fun to watch.

But the performance that really makes this film is Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of President Lincoln. Many have complained about Lincoln’s voice, but I actually liked it, it reminded me a little bit of President Reagan’s voice. The wit and warmth Day-Lewis brings to the role is quite remarkable and it just goes to show that the best quality a president can have is his/her ability to deal with people. Like Meryl Streep last year, playing this real-life world leader has put Day-Lewis in the lead to win the Best Actor Oscar. Day-Lewis will make you genuinely like Lincoln and feel a real sadness when his assassination has been announced. Many have said that President Obama can learn a thing or two from Lincoln, I’d say any politician should watch this film and watch what real leadership looks like.

Overall, this was a brilliant film! I would highly recommend going to see it. It reminds us conservatives of the greatness of our nation’s founding principles. And Republicans will be reminded that liberty is something worth fighting for!



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