Movie Review: Time of the Essence in ‘Lincoln’
by Peter Grandey
overing the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s life after the presidential election of 1884, and focusing on the president’s January 1865 efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, "Lincoln" is a powerhouse historical drama. In the year following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War raged on, and with it a fire grew within Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, to do what was necessary to save the Union and end slavery.
"Lincoln" masterfully avoids the trappings of other historical dramas in that it keeps its focus and is well-paced, notwithstanding its run time of two and a half hours. The film creates tension from the opening scene and never lets up. For the audience, time is of the essence, just as it is for the president.
It is clear that Lincoln finds the events of 1863 and 1864, including the Emancipation Proclamation, hard to reconcile. He doesn’t believe that people can be owned and thus considered property; however, the president’s only footing for the Emancipation Proclamation is the very claim that slaves are property and therefore can be seized by the federal government in aid of the war effort. The depth of Lincoln’s disdain for the events of the previous months is revealed in a powerful scene in which he and his cabinet plan the assault on Wilmington Harbor, the busiest base of the Confederacy. Day-Lewis, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the president, shines in the scene as he puts forth Lincoln’s political and legal dilemma.
The film also masterfully shows the behind-the-scenes "vote buying" that went into the passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln’s plan to offer federal jobs to representatives who lost reelection, and would thus feel less pressure to vote against the amendment, is nothing short of political genius. The deals are done in back rooms or no room, but always in secret by political agents, hired by Secretary of State William Seward (played by David Strathairn). The agents are under express orders to never reveal who they are working for, and the cast of agents buying votes, including W.N. Bilbo, played by James Spader, is truly a highlight of the film.
Time is a constant theme used to intensify scenes. Lincoln is obsessed with time, and again Day-Lewis steals a scene in which Lincoln propounds that blood has been spilled for the cause and that the 13th Amendment must be passed, "Now, now, now!"
However, it is the film’s subtler use of this time theme that really shines. Clocks constantly surround Lincoln, and he is even seen pushing his pocket watch like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. By the time the House is voting on the 13th Amendment, the most constant sound is the ticking of a clock.
The film provides great insight into Lincoln’s ability to turn conversations around and refocus discussion on his agenda. Lincoln is a masterful storyteller and he often speaks in metaphor and simile. His ability to spin the argument is pushed to the forefront, not by politics, but by Mary Todd Lincoln. It also highlights a humanity in the president not seen before in film.
In what is certainly actress Sally Field’s best scene, she and Day-Lewis’ Lincoln grieve for their child, who was lost to illness. As she berates him for a seeming lack of compassion over his dead son, Lincoln delivers a touching account of his personal struggle with the boy’s death.
Interactions between Lincoln and his sons reveal a tender, devoted father trying to protect his children from war-induced trauma. He refuses his youngest access to war photos and denies his eldest from joining the Army. Day-Lewis delivers a masterful performance overall, infusing emotion and feeling into every scene.
"Lincoln" is a must-see film, from the acting and the directing to the score and cinematography. But, more importantly, this is a must-see film for its content and what it means to American history. The events from "Lincoln" have shaped our society and there are parallels that resonate in today’s political landscape. D
Peter Grandey has been practicing law in Colorado for two years, mainly focusing on compliance issues. He also holds a degree in journalism from Ithaca College. Grandey may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.