Obligation Cinema: Lincoln Reviewed


Lincoln plays in theatres now.  So see it.  I admit, that perhaps one third to halfway through Lincoln which rolled before us on the screen in this crowded cineplex theatre I did sense: obligation:  I should sit through this film; it will benefit me.

But for as well as any of us will ever know, Abraham Lincoln is alive and well for most of the film which bears his name.  Lincoln lives on the big screen through the brilliant performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.  Daniel Day–Lewis fully embodies this role.  He is Abraham Lincoln.  I suppose that is high praise, the highest praise.  Previously, Daniel Day-Lewis, who grew up in Britain, won an Oscar for Best Actor in My Left Foot.

The film Lincoln though, covers exhaustively and nearly exhaustingly the politics, wheeling and dealing and machinations within the 19th-century House of Representatives which finally approved the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, our Constitution.  Such political wrangling does not often make for riveting cinema, but it does lead to some interest here in a noisy, violent, earthy Congress which seems accurate to any viewer with some knowledge of American history of this Republic.

Sally Field,(an Academy-Award winner) performs admirably as the suffering Mary Todd Lincoln, who with her husband’s death lost both a husband, and her mind.  Her performance has depth, but not the sort of depths and shadows which her husband inhabits and which Daniel Day-Lewis, son of the Oxford-educated Poet Laureate, Cecil Day–Lewis brings to bear in this screen performance.  Hal Holbrook, who has portrayed both Lincoln and Mark Twain previously, performs well as Francis Preston Blair, a Republican politician who attempts to work a peace settlement within the beleagured nation of those warring parties: The North, or Union, and The South, or Confederacy, which Lincoln would not fully recognize.  And in this film the nation is indeed beleaguered.  Lewis as Lincoln mutters: “600,000 thousand” lives lost.  The film also depicts the blood and mud, the pale, amputated limbs, and those valiant soldiers and horses trudging through rain.


But Tommy Lee Jones(also an Academy Award winner) as Thaddeus Stevens outdoes all but Daniel Day–Lewis; Jones, the quirky, earthy, Harvard-educated character actor subsumes his persona within this role to brilliant effect. Stevens, a Vermonter by birth, grew up in penury, graduated from Dartmouth College, and then moved to Pennsylvania, the state which he represents in the 19th century.  Stevens never married, but in this film’s version of his life he sleeps with his mixed-race housekeeper near the close of the movie.


James Spader also effectively puts forth his role as James Bilbo, a lobbyist.  The always capable David Straihairn performs well as Secretary of State William Seward.  Joseph Gordon–Levitt (of 10 Things I Hate About You and 3rd Rock from the Sun fame) nearly grows up as Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln; Gordon–Levitt remains well cast as the younger Lincoln, champing at the bit to assume an active role as a soldier for the Union in the Civil War.

Toward the close of Lincoln, the film, the tall Abraham Lincoln beseeches Americans with his famous Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, and firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  Day–Lewis’s voice quietly, nearly pleads as he leans over and around his lectern reaching out to the crowd and the nation.  That Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln contains some of the most brilliant political rhetoric in our nation’s history.  Here, film-goers see Lincoln as he pleads his cause for the healing of a nation devastated by the Civil War.  Earlier in the film Day–Lewis as Lincoln comes across more as philosopher, not orator.

The film Lincoln is directed by Steven Spielberg, and produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy.

Daniel Picker is the author of a new book of poetry “Steep Stony Road” which was published by Viral Cat Press of San Francisco in 2012.

One Response to “Obligation Cinema: Lincoln Reviewed”

  1. The review above was written by Daniel Picker.

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