Verdict: Three out of five stars. A long, long movie that requires at least a basic historical knowledge of slavery and the American Civil War, a sharp ear to follow some lengthy monologues and a lot of patience. But your perseverance will be rewarded as Daniel Day-Lewis turns in a quite astonishing performance as Abraham Lincoln. And despite some gifted supporting performances from the likes of  Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn, Day-Lewis dominates proceedings and proves more than worthy of yet another Oscar nomination for Best Actor. 
Lincoln movie review

Lincoln tours the battlefield.

I feel compelled to begin this movie review with an actual conversation I had with a friend.
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Me: “I just watched Lincoln.”
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Friend: “Vampire slayer?”
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Granted, Abraham Lincoln may not be that well-known a historical figure to Singaporeans or even non-Americans. But it seems a telling statement about the times we live in that a fictional version of him that chops heads and kicks ass may become more well-known than the (sort of) historically accurate account.
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Historical dramas almost always incur the wrath of historians and interested parties, with accusations of bias and inaccuracy inevitable. In the case of Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), 16th president of the United States, the Great Emancipator, ender of slavery, secular saint and man who never lied, director Steven Spielberg is treading on particularly thin ice. It’s a good thing then, that he has a text by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian as his guide. The screenplay by Tony Kushner is partly based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln movie review

“Look son, for the last time, I don’t kill vampires.”

The setting of Lincoln feels wholly appropriate, and sadly familiar: an America at an impasse in Congress, a president accused of being a tyrant and a nation divided on every front.  The movie itself concentrates on a very narrow period in the American Civil War, specifically, Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.  Beset by political enemies and under pressure to end the four year-old civil war, Lincoln is advised by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to practice caution.
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Instead, he reaches out to radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (the always curmudgeonly Tommy Lee Jones) for help in getting Congress to pass the Amendment. Even Lincoln is not above – surprise, surprise – pork-barrel politics, as he engages three fixers to lobby undecided Democrats to vote for the bill by offering them patronage. But time is running out, as the pro-slavery Confederate side, on the verge of defeat, seems ready to sue for peace – and they will not accept the end of slavery.
Lincoln movie review
In years to come, when movie critics and fans speak of an actor carrying a movie, they should look no further than two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Speaking in low, gentle cadences as he navigates long monologues with ease, Day-Lewis simply becomes Lincoln. He is everything we long for in our political leaders, and everything we so rarely see in them: patient, wise, humorous, and full of integrity.  “No one’s ever been loved so much by the people,” says his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), and Day-Lewis proves exactly why.
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His transformation is all the more astounding when you consider another of his great performances in Gangs of New York (2002), as gang leader Bill The Butcher, a man from the same era but the polar opposite of Lincoln. When he declares: “Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment. Now! Now! Now!”, you almost want to stand up and cheer. And even when he is sitting and contemplating silently, Day-Lewis’ portrait of a great man is nothing less than great.

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Spielberg is smart enough not to gloss over Lincoln’s imperfections or paint him as a saint, dwelling at length on his strained relationships with son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and wife Mary, who may have been bipolar. Day-Lewis aside, these are the moments when the movie truly comes to life, as we get a glimpse into the toll that being president takes on Lincoln and his family life. And there truly is a terrible weight upon his shoulders: “Think of all the boys who’ll die if you don’t make peace,” says Republican Party founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook).
Lincoln movie review

Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln

Despite the impressive cast, Jones is just about the only cast member not to be overwhelmed by the Day-Lewis tsunami. He is his usual cantankerous, yet amusing self: “The people elected me to lead them, and I lead. You should try it sometime.” When Jones and Day-Lewis face off, it really does feel like a clash of titans. JGL tries his best, but fine actor though he is, he cannot help but pale in comparison to his on-screen father.
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But there is far too much talking, with some speeches seeming to go on for hours. At times, I got lost trying to figure out what exactly the characters were debating. It also feels strange that in a movie about slavery, there is only one really significant black character in Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), a close confidant of Mary Todd. Even then, Reuben is given little to do besides stand in a dignified manner and look wistfully into the distance.
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Lincoln opens in Singapore today. Will you be watching it? What did you think of it?
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