Movie review – A man ahead of American time

2013-02-03 10:00

Film: Lincoln (Nu Metro)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Featuring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Spader

Rating: 8/10

Aman is sitting on a bench, his back to the audience.

He is seen only in silhouette to start with, but you can tell he’s a big man, a giant of a man even.

It is in the slope of his shoulders, in the way his arms seem to swing loosely at his sides, the way his knees are bent at crazy angles.

­He’s talking to a pair of black soldiers after a battle and asking what they will do when the fighting is over.

So begins the portrayal by the world’s greatest actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, of a great leader – the 16th president of the US, Abraham Lincoln.

Day-Lewis gets the physicality of the man – he was 193cm, a full 15cm taller than the average man of the time in America – spot on.

But more importantly, he fleshes out Lincoln’s interior life, he breathes life into the tens of thousands of words written about America’s equivalent of former president Nelson Mandela.

By the time you’ve watched Lincoln, you’ll feel like you knew the guy and that is why in the kingdom of Hollywood, Irishman Day-Lewis is king.

This is a biopic that captures one of America’s most important historical events, but it is also a political thriller about a righteous man in power and the compromises he makes to do the right thing.

Before getting into the dirty business of politics, director Steven Spielberg sets the broader scene for this largely interior film with horribly graphic scenes from the civil war, of men grappling with each other in the mud, running each other through at close quarters and doing whatever terrible thing is necessary to survive for the next battle.

It’s gruelling stuff, but so is the diplomatic war going on behind closed doors to end the bloodshed and put an end to slavery.

Lincoln minutely explores the difference between gaining power, and the difficult business of wielding it both ethically and effectively.

As our own leaders exhibit daily, getting power is the easy bit. It’s what comes after that sorts the wheat from the chaff.

The president is determined to end slavery in his lifetime.

It is both a personal necessity for moral reasons (glaringly obvious in our time), but also a political one to pull the unruly southern states into line and ensure the survival of the Union.

Though an honest man, Lincoln must stoop to political shenanigans to get his way when the parliamentary vote comes up.

While history tells us what happens during that vote, Spielberg still manages to expertly build the tension as Lincoln’s men scour the house for “yes” votes.

James Spader is chief persuader, and there are some pretty funny moments as he courts and cajoles men to vote for freedom.

Tommy Lee Jones, who is a sure thing for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year (it can go on the shelf with his 1994 one for

The Fugitive), portrays the radical Thaddeus Stevens.

The politician was in favour of equal rights for all – in 1865, a pretty radical thought indeed.

Jones is so brilliant as the ranting radical asked to tread softly by Lincoln that I for one would love to see a whole film about this guy.

Though he started out speaking out for rights for minorities, religious affiliations and women, it was the freedom of slaves that consumed him and made him Lincoln’s unlikely ally in the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which freed all slaves.

Lincoln was a man ahead of American time, but it’s worth noting that slavery in England was declared illegal in 1772 – a mere three years before the American War of Independence and one of the myriad reasons for the fight for independence from Britain.

Also, as far as handing out the vote, America took five years after the passing of the Amendment to give black men the vote, but it would take another 50 years for America’s men to give their mothers, wives and daughters the vote.

Perhaps what makes Lincoln’s story such a tragic one for US history is that he might well have achieved so much more had he not been assassinated in 1865, a week after getting the Amendment passed and with most of his second term in office to go.

Spielberg has outdone himself again telling a powerful story that is located in a specific time and place, but which resonates with all of us.

»? Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala

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