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Movie review: "Lincoln" a must-see film

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(150 minutes, Rated PG-13 for graphic violence and imagery.)

(9 stars out of 10)

Steven Spielberg was once quoted, "Every time I go to the movies, it's magic, no matter what the movie is about."

No other filmmaker today is as beloved as Spielberg. He is the only director with five movies in the American Film Institute's List of "100 Best Movies of All-Time" (Can you name them?  They are: "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "E.T.", "Jaws", "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan.") By most any measure, he is the best director/producer of any generation.

For me, his movies have the uncanny knack of picking me up and carrying me back in time until I am 12 years-old again. (Why else would I see "Raiders" four times in the theater during its one-week re-release this past fall?).  So, any time he releases a movie, especially one for such a history freak as myself... well, color me excited.

And I am happy to report that "Lincoln" is an exceptionally grand movie.

Spielberg made a brilliant decision here not to do a grand biopic of Lincoln's entire life, instead focusing on the last four months of his life and primarily on his efforts to obtain the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution by the U.S. House of Representatives. Lincoln's belief that his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 might not withstand scrutiny in a court of law after the Civil War (and thus return the country to slavery) was his fundamental motivation behind his push for the amendment. While the movie's foundation focuses upon the politics of the time, it also richly gives us, with laser clarity, all the complexities in his life, both professional and personal, with which he dealt.

After opening with a rather forced and campy scene (really my only criticism) in which free black soldiers repeated back the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln (no spoiler alert needed: it was in the trailer), the movie quickly picks up pace and, like most every other historical Spielberg movie, I found myself quickly transformed back to Washington DC in 1865. The scenes were beautifully shot by choreographer Janusz Kaminski, who does all Spielberg's movies. The sets were wide and expansive and caught the true details of the day. The costumes were lush and wonderful. Overall, it was a glamorous and satiating feast for the eyes.

Based upon the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner (yes, THAT Tony Kushner) who won a Pulitzer Prize for his stage play "Angels in America" and also wrote "Munich" (a vastly underrated movie) for Spielberg. The script clipped along smartly and Kushner allowed for humor that gave more than several laugh-out-loud moments, yet most importantly gave us a crushing sense of the sadness and extraordinary gravitas that permeated Lincoln's persona during those final months of his life.

Without any doubt, Daniel Day-Lewis ("The Last of the Mohicans" and "There Will Be Blood") was remarkable as Lincoln and will most-assuredly capture a Best Actor nomination if not the award itself. The makeup artists transformed his image and gave him the shockingly haggard look of a man who carried the stress that Lincoln did during the Civil War. However, it is Day-Lewis who physically morphs into Lincoln and magically allows you to believe you are watching Abraham Lincoln on the screen. His gait, so richly described by historians, is perfect. The stress from the weight of the world and over 500,000 American soldiers dead was not only captured in his physicality of the character, but in the deep, darkness of his eyes. His performance, for all two and a half hours, was utterly a thing of beauty.

Another of Spielberg's uncanny abilities is putting together supporting actors that tend to blow you away with their performances and "Lincoln" is a repeat of that hallmark. Sally Field plays Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, who battles her mental illnesses, most likely bipolar disorder, and grieves for her son, Willie, who died in 1862. She gives a unique performance, even for her, and through her substantial acting abilities and the writing shows us that Mary Todd was not just simply insane but someone effectually brilliant in her own right who fought hard against her maladies for most of her life.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a Congressman from Pennsylvania who was a lifelong abolitionist and instrumental in the passage of the 13th amendment. Debate on the U.S. House floor has always been rather extreme, especially then compared with now, and you can share in how Jones revels in the lavish and entirely impertinent words of the script. He has a Best Supporting Actor nomination in the bag.

The stable of actors that kept appearing is simply sensational. All as great as the next, there was a "wow factor" as we see David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the hottest thing in Hollywood right now), Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes and James Spader (this movie could be Spader's best work) march across the screen.

Finally, you cannot review a Spielberg movie without commenting on the John Williams score. This is his 26th collaboration with Spielberg (he's done all but one of his movies) and in my humble opinion, it is one of his best works ever.  Williams, the indisputable Mozart of our generation, has created a score that avails itself of drums and fife and he penned several pieces that could have been sung on a military march in 1863. Performed by the Chicago Symphony, the sublime score is both melodic and melancholy at the same time. The solitary piano pieces are beautifully haunting and have not been out of my Spotify account since I saw the movie.

"Lincoln" is a must-see movie and incontrovertibly a nominee for Best Picture.  While it's not quite another AFI Top 100 movie of all-time for Spielberg, it is pretty close.

Go see it. Take your kids.

I give it 9 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!