Oscar catch-up: ‘Lincoln’ deserves the praise

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The other day I noted I hadn’t seen a single one of the major Academy Award contenders and hoped to do so before Oscar night.

Last night I finally had a chance to see “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s big-screen treatment of events surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment to the constitution and the wind-down of the Civil War.

Considering the praise that’s been heaped on the film – and the 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture – it’s no real surprise that the film is so good. But what’s best about the movie is that it doesn’t sanctify Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Spielberg emphasizes the 16th president’s determination to do what’s right in all things, as well as his kind soul.

But the best things about “Lincoln” are the ways it humanizes Lincoln, a man given to folksy stories and metaphors, so much so that he quips at one point that it’s good to be comprehended.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln – and Day-Lewis disappears into the role; I rarely thought of the actor himself at any point during the movie – is a mix of grim humor and pathos, a towering man bowed by tragedy.

As the movie opens, in early 1965, it’s assumed that the war is coming to an end after four bloody years and more than 600,000 casualties. But Lincoln is determined to push the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude, through Congress. Democrats in the House oppose the move and Lincoln’s own Republicans are torn between strident abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and moderates who want to end the war as quickly as possible. If that means maintaining slavery, then so be it, they reason.

The movie – written by Tony Kushner and based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” – shows Lincoln trying to accomplish the balancing act of trying to get the amendment passed but maintaining the urgency of the war as a motivator for Washington’s politicians.

The idea that Lincoln is prolonging the war, even by a few days, weighs heavily on him and the film. The president visits a battlefield strewn with bodies as well as a Union hospital to talk to young soldiers who lost limbs. There’s a horrible moment when Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) watches as hospital orderlies dump arms and legs into a pit. Robert desperately wants to enlist. His mother, Mary (Sally Field), plagued by memories of the death of another son as well as depression and headaches, threatens to hold her husband personally responsible if Robert dies.

Don’t assume that “Lincoln” is somber throughout, however. Lincoln is himself a wry and funny presence and a major subplot – in which three Republican operatives (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) go around soliciting the votes of outgoing Democrat representatives to support the amendment – is consistently amusing.

I have very few quibbles with “Lincoln,” although a major one is an unnecessary scene near the end. The war over and the slaves freed, Lincoln continues to meet with his cabinet to plan his second term. He’s reminded that he’s to go out with his wife for the evening. He dons his coat and hat and leaves the White House. The iconic shots of Lincoln walking away would have sufficed to emphasize the man’s passing into history.

I didn’t even mind a scene that followed, with young Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath) watching a play, only to be heartbroken when an announcement is made that his father had been shot.

I just wish that Spielberg had omitted a bed scene, with Lincoln being pronounced dead from his wounds. It is the least subtle moment of the movie, complete with the phrase, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The movie was more than strong enough to do without it.

“Lincoln” is a smart, heart-breaking and sometimes wryly humorous look at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history and the man at the center of it.

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