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“Lincoln” is fascinating but flawed

In the wake of the presidential election, the timing couldn’t be better for a film about arguably America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. And Stephen Spielberg delivers with a fascinating but flawed “Lincoln,” starring the brilliant Daniel Day Lewis.

First and foremost, it stands as a nice corrective to all those misty-eyed “mythic” portrayals of him that we’ve grown accustomed to. This is not the Log Cabin Lincoln or the Great Debater Lincoln. This movie is also not much about the travails of the Civil War or the eloquence of the Gettysburg Address.

Instead it’s about the nitty-gritty work of passing legislation. Spielberg’s Lincoln is one “great man” who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty for a good cause. As a one-time rival and admirer says in the film, rarely has more corruption been done in the name of an honorable man.

The focus of the film is Lincoln’s behind-the-scenes struggle to convince Congress to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. But an equally pressing issue also demanded his attention: the Civil War was coming to an end.

The question for the President was which issue should take precedence. As fascinating as that decision is, the extent to which Lincoln was willing to go to pass the Amendment is equally enlightening. And the source of much debate among his supporters.

Patronage jobs and cold hard cash were doled out liberally. The politics may indeed have been dirty back then, but for Lincoln apparently, politics was not a dirty word.

So much for the fascinating aspect of this film. As for its flaws, we can begin and end with the storytelling. It’s dramatically hit or miss. When it misses, it’s either wooden or schmaltzy.

Lincoln’s very first scene, for instance, in which he interacts with a handful of soldiers, seems awkwardly staged, more like a photo-op gone bad than any kind of real exchange. And his lengthy discourse to the Cabinet on the ambiguities of the War Powers Act – although interesting content – comes off as unnatural and dramatically flat.

As for the schmaltz, John Williams’ score is at times so heavy-handed that it undercuts rather than supports the emotional thrust of the film. (At the climax of the film, I wrote in my notes – “Did a Broadway musical just break out?”) And at the film’s end – when Lincoln magically appears inside a single lamp flame reciting his Inaugural Address – I realize Spielberg means for it to be stirring. But it just made me cringe.

These flaws don’t ruin the movie, they just limit its emotional power. And nothing can hurt the performances of Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln – his high-pitched voice is off-putting at first but apparently accurate – and Tommy Lee Jones as the firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens who ends up being Lincoln’s best ally in the House. Don’t be surprised if both men win Oscars this year. And Sally Field may very well got nominated for her turn as the President’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln

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