Cocktails & Movies Review: “Lincoln” – Worthy of a Spot Higher on Mt. Rushmore

Cocktails & Movies review of "Lincoln"“Lincoln” is simply an amazing film. It works on all fronts, from an amazing, well paced script (very hard to do for a historical character study), to fantastic performances by a river-boat load of accomplished lead and character actors, to a beautifully shot scenes of subtle emotional beauty by Steven Spielberg.

If there is one thing you come away with after watching this amazing film, it’s that Abraham Lincoln was funny, fond of telling stories and had some seriously big brass cajones. I know! WHO thought he was funny? (According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, on which a lot of Lincoln’s character is based he WAS.) He was a consummate professional political tactician and held to his convictions even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Those odds: a Civil War in the United States, an even more divided Congress on the issue of slavery and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and a family torn apart by loss and heartbreak.

The movie opens just after Lincoln (played powerfully and convincingly by Daniel Day Lewis), is re-elected President. The Civil War appears to be nearing an end as the North moves inexorably toward finishing off the renegade Southern States. Asked by a Negro U.S. soldier WHY white men are making more as soldiers and suggesting that in 50 years their might be “maybe a colonel,” Lincoln seems to be moved to revisit the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The Amendment, originally a ploy to force the South to capitulate, has already been voted down by a split Congress that cannot get a 2/3 majority to pass it, and is a very hot potato politically for Lincoln.

But, with 30 days left until the inauguration of the new Congress, Lincoln embarks upon a campaign to get the 20 votes from vitriolic anti-Lincoln lame duck Democratic Representatives. The Secretary of State, William Seward, played with standard eloquence by David Strathairn, hires the 19th Century version of lobbyists, played to humorous perfection by James Spader, Jackie Earl Haley and Tim Blake Nelson, sometimes with outrageous back room deals that wouldn’t seem out of place today.

The tension mounts on the floor of Congress (NO, CSPAN is never like this), as the sides badger each other and the country’s feelings about Blacks in the U.S. are laid open for all to see. And these are the representatives of the FREE states, or the North if you will. It’s a great history lesson to see on screen how divided the country was about the issue of equality, even in those states that considered themselves “free states.” Adding to the back room deals and the horsetrading is a rumor that the Confederacy is sending envoys to negotiate a peace, which would stop any and all discussion of the amendment in order to bring the Southern States back to the Union. Lincoln delays the diplomats in hopes of bringing the vote to the floor on the 31st of January.

But, Lincoln is also a man. And with that come his troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, played brilliantly by Sally Field, who can’t get past the loss of one of their sons, and a son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to join the military.

At its core, the movie is about rebellion and the man at the center trying to hold it all together and the toll that it takes on him. Near the end of the movie, as Lincoln tells Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) to accept the surrender of CSA forces and let them go home, Grant looks at his friend and says, “By the look of your face, you’ve aged 10 years in the last one.”  It’s true, over the course of the film, with the rebellion in his own party, the Congress, his family and the Southern States all weighing on him, he has changed with all the pressure.

To describe this as simply a film is to do it an injustice. Spielberg is able to weave what could be a boring historical character study into a moving and enjoyable insight into American history. Not an easy feat. It’s a phenomenal look into a man trying to hold everything together. Lewis is as convincing of an Abraham Lincoln as you’ll ever find. His transformation, down to the walk and the use of speech in his funny stories (and there are a LOT of them) is uncanny. The script is full of great 19th Century insults and you had to imagine that the actors, including Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, and Walton Coggins among them, had some fun with the dialogue and poking fun at politics and politicians.

Go see this. You’ll thank yourself and every 10th grade American History teacher you ever had. One note: if you are taking kids to see this movie, understand that there is derogatory language used throughout, language that was prevalent during the time of slavery. So, be warned.

Cocktails & Movies Rating: Golden Flask (yes, it’s that time of year…)