Review: 'Lincoln' A Leader, Not A Celebrity

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Apparently, no one’s ever won an Oscar for playing a president. I suspect that’s why director Steven Spielberg cast Daniel Day Lewis. (Better odds.) His eerily smooth performance as the 16th president is a consistent mix of gawky authority and patrician ease. He instructs his Whitehouse staff with parables and anecdotes; the elders don’t all appreciate it but the younger staff clings to his stories like good students, listening intently for cues. Somewhere in there, Lincoln will call upon their faculties and better sense, and the film about him will ask something similar of us.

Though Lincoln is dramatic (at times even schmaltzy) we hardly enter the emotional life of the titular leader. Instead we’re mired in battle for the 13th Amendment, the adjustment to the constitution that ended The Civil War by ending slavery and disabling the Southern economy. The moral quandaries of politicking are played for laughs and pathos in turns: James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes are gleefully gross as a fishy trio paid to procure votes. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones is the principled Democratic foe to Lincoln’s friendly Republican. Jones has spent 30 years fighting racism and scaring away votes with his liberal verbiage. If Jones changes his tune he could abolish slavery—it’d be a massive win, but he’d have to sell some of himself to get it. When confronted about his backpedalling, Jones replies, “I guess there’s nothing I won’t say to get this Amendment passed.” Politics, it seems, lives and dies on a slippery slope.

Lincoln is deeply patriotic. Pride in nation and dedication to the good of all is the uncontroversial ends to a perfectly controversial story. I didn’t think playing dirty to win the clean victory could be hope inspiring, but here, it is.

In the basement of the Whitehouse Lewis and Jones go head to head. They may be the two most articulate and jocular talkers in DC—a town made of men who can talk their way into/out of anything—and they both want abolition but for different reasons. Jones decries America’s moral compass, suggesting leadership needs to show the way. Lewis asks what good a moral compass is alone; extending the metaphor he asks ‘what good is true north if you follow it straight into a swamp?’ Common sense and instinct are values more essential than principles, and we couldn’t have touched on them if this had been a biopic about how Lincoln was feeling when he made history. I understand wanting to see that movie, he’s a fascinating figure, but letting him remain a figure, beholden to powers greater than the average person, becomes its own patriotic act. Let the celebrities and the leaders write their separate speeches.

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About Sara Vizcarrondo

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Sara Vizcarrondo is a freelance film critic out of San Francisco. She runs Opening Movies at Rottentomatoes, teaches film/media studies at DeAnza college and writes on film for Popdose and The SF Bay Guardian.

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