'Lincoln' pushes emotional buttons

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln.

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln.

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:21 AM ET

If the best stories about the future are really about the present, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln proves that the same is true of stories about the past.

In Lincoln, you have a president with an unpopular agenda that the party in opposition vows to block at every turn. The Republican president has shady "operatives" akin to Nixon's plumbers who set about corrupting the process in favour of the President, by offering patronage jobs in exchange for Democrats breaking ranks.

There are principled people who have to swallow principles in order to broker a watered-down version of the progress they wanted.

And there is a President who will lie in front of Congress to achieve what he feels is the greater good.

To be sure, there are moments - mainly at the beginning and end - of Lincoln when that old emotional button-pusher Spielberg just can't help himself, when John Williams' soundtrack strings swell and the man seems to have stepped off the chair at the Lincoln Memorial, a chiselled figure of transcendent dignity and heroism.

But the middle is the meat. And Lincoln offers a seldom-told tale of the part realpolitik plays in a democracy, when what's right and what's popular are at odds.

It's also infused with humour, courtesy of screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels In America), who tapped into Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling Lincoln biography as source material.

At stake is the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. Its passage depends on Lincoln preserving the narrative that passing it is the only way to end the Civil War. The South, meanwhile, is willing to sue for peace as long as they can keep their slaves (which popular sentiment would support, since freeing blacks was not really high on the average voter's priority list).

Daniel Day-Lewis is a magnetic, but somewhat reedy-voiced Lincoln (when he loses absolute control over his accent, it evokes the old Western character actor Walter Brennan). He's prone to telling "stories" to deflect or soften any confrontation, and indeed his stories become a running joke, prompting some fed-up characters to leave the room when they hear one coming.

But the most laughs in Lincoln belong to, of all people, Tommy Lee Jones as the witheringly sarcastic abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, whose performance has "supporting Oscar nom" written all over it. It's the stubborn Stevens who is asked to compromise his conscience for the greater good, at the behest of a President who is seen as an insane reformer by his opponents and not reformer enough by his disillusioned supporters (sound familiar?).

In fact, everywhere you turn in Lincoln, there is a formidable actor acting. Sally Field creates a real, sometimes unpleasant, Mary Todd, who plays an active, angry role in her husband's politics, while grieving the death of their son William two years earlier. In one of her few scenes that isn't directly with Day-Lewis, she memorably tears a strip off of Stevens in front of a crowd at a party. David Strathairn is pure pro as the rational William Seward, who calmly demonstrates to his boss the power of race hatred.

If it all seems a little bit rosy-eyed at the end for today's race-riven America, well, that too, is Spielberg.

jim.slotek@sunmedia.ca


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