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A spellbinding performance and a beautifully nuanced film about statesmanship, quiet contemplation and – above all else - principle.
By Tom Glasson
February 05, 2013
By Tom Glasson
February 05, 2013

For not the first time in his career, Steven Spielberg deserves some serious credit. Lincoln is not only the director's most accomplished, audacious, and affecting film of perhaps the past 20 years but also his most surprising given the focus of the story he chose to tell. It's actually hard not to envisage the faces of the DreamWorks executives as he walked into their offices and said:

"I'm ready to make another film".
"And I want to do it about Lincoln."
Double jackpot. Our most beloved president — bring on the inevitable Oscars and fortunes!
"But instead of focussing on the Civil War="
"-and rather than looking at his assassination"
"-I want to spend three hours talking about the passing of some legislation by the House of Representatives."
…Okay, umn…Steven, are you SURE you don't want to do it about the War? Because the War was VERY interesting…I mean there were explosions and everything.

Well, screw that imaginary Dreamworks executive, because it's precisely that specificity and lack of action that makes Lincoln such an unexpectedly compelling biopic. It's also a notable counterpoint to 2011's Iron Lady in that, instead of covering the president's entire life, it essentially focuses on just a few weeks in January 1865 when Lincoln attempted to enact the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery.

The traditional challenge for any historical narrative is that the audience already knows how it ends, meaning tension must be sought elsewhere, in the emotions rather than the events. Apollo 13 is a fine example of this. We all know Lovell and his crew made it back safely, but those final few minutes remain impossibly tense because we're so invested in the characters that didn't know. Hence the drama in Lincoln comes not from 'Would the anti-slavery bill pass?' but rather 'How did it pass, and at what cost?'

The result is a beautifully nuanced film about statesmanship, quiet contemplation, and — above all else — principle. After years of devastating Civil War, Lincoln (in another mesmerising performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) finally finds himself presented with an opportunity to end the bloodshed subject only to the southern states' right to maintain slavery. With even his own children on the battlefield, the decision to make peace seems obvious, and yet, so too does equality — something deemed so obvious as to be self-evident.

"We are stepped out upon the world stage now," he declares to his cabinet amid fierce opposition to the bill, "with the fate of human dignity in our hands." That he persisted and triumphed is why history reveres him, but how he did it and with whose help is why it's so worth watching.

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