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Jeff Hersheway: 'Lincoln' Will Leave You Breathless

'Lincoln' provides stimulating entertainment from astounding performances and masterful direction by veteran Steven Spielberg.

Let's get real for a moment: It is a very rare feat to mess up a presidential biopic. I mean it's a really, really, hard thing to do (looking at you, W.).But with Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and star Daniel Day-Lewis have gone above and beyond to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

The film tells the story of Abraham Lincoln, his cabinet, and allies in Congress toward the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the country’s reconstruction. Lincoln's team is trying to figure out a way to get the 13th Amendment passed through the House of Representatives, cattily battling it out with one another in order to find the best possible way to get the Confederacy to rejoin the Union.

Throughout the trials and tribulations of Lincoln's political tasks, we see a side to the president that has never really been brought out in history: his humanity. Daniel Day-Lewis fleshes out Lincoln so well that the actor himself legitimately disappears into the role. Lewis' immersion in the character of Lincoln makes him a frontrunner in this year's Academy Awards for best actor. Lewis exposes Lincoln's soft side toward the end of the war—a president who, in the end, is just another man trying to keep both the nation and his family from crumbling to dust in his hands. It is obvious that Lincoln, in this time of crisis, has forced himself to become the central figurehead for maintaining peace by any means necessary—whether that means lying to the House of Representatives about negotiations with the Confederacy or forcing himself to remain calm even in the grief of his youngest son's death.

Indeed, Lincoln's family plays a crucial role in humanizing the president. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, a woman forced to shield her grief over her son's death in order to play the part of the happy, educated housewife and First Lady. Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln both beautifully and with more versatility than more of her male counterparts. Mary Todd Lincoln spends her time in the film struggling between her two identities as depressed mother and as a model First Lady, demanding her husband feel the mental and physical torture of the loss of their child that has been brought upon her, and only receiving cold indifference in return. Field shows the interesting and not very often explored mindset of Mary Todd’s instability; although she may be crippled by the loss of her son, she shows that she is still mentally capable of holding her own in fights, whether they be shouting matches with her husband or arguments with one of Lincoln's more obscene partners in the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens, played with a biting rancor by veteran actor and Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones.

Lincoln is a film upheld by a masterful screenplay, brilliant performances, and stunning direction by Spielberg. It's refreshing to see the veteran director provide more serious fare yet again in the theater, his last attempt being the film adaptation of the stage play War Horse. Spielberg shoots the film wanting it to be more than just a biopic: He intends to draw the audience in by providing a multi-faceted script, portraying the story of Lincoln as a seemingly endless courtroom drama, a striking portrait of a political family waiting for an implosion, and an inside look at the elaborate planning and tension of the president's cabinet. 

Although the film is politically charged in every sense of the phrase, it's evident that it gets most of its strength from the heart of the characters who uphold the Reconstruction. It never hesitates to humanize any of its core cast members, creating fantastic three-dimensional characters provided by interesting and flexible actors, not only fleshing out these historic figures but also making them feel more real than most political campaigns make actual real-life candidates.

Lincoln, is one of the best—if not the best—film of the year. It's clear that every actor in the cast brought his or her "A" game, delivering every line with both realism and power. Tony Kushner has done a remarkable job reviving the era of the Civil War, providing a well-rounded interpretation of the times and sacrifices the nation made in order to make it out of the 1860s alive. Spielberg provides the audience with a film not meant to dazzle or excite, but to educate and astound with groundbreaking performances and thought-provoking storytelling. The film may lag in the middle for some looking for a more visually epic experience in the theater, but what people need to understand is that Lincoln was not created to stimulate an audience with another grandiose popcorn film, but to provide a fascinating interpretation of a president trying to keep both his family and the nation from imminent destruction.

Lincoln will leave you breathless and, more importantly, make you realize just how real the political figure was—a text often lost in the midst of slave emancipation and illogically tall hats.

 

Grade: A+

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