A President Engaged in a Great Civil War (Published 2012) – The New York Times

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It is something of a paradox that American movies — a great democratic art form, if ever there was one — have not done a very good job of representing American democracy. Make-believe movie presidents are usually square-jawed action heroes, stoical Solons or ineffectual eggheads, blander and more generically appealing than their complicated real-life counterparts, who tend to be treated deferentially or ignored entirely unless they are named Richard Nixon.
The legislative process — the linchpin of our system of checks and balances — is often treated with lofty contempt masquerading as populist indignation, an attitude typified by the aw-shucks antipolitics of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Hollywood dreams of consensus, of happy endings and box office unity, but democratic government can present an interminable tale of gridlock, compromise and division. The squalor and vigor, the glory and corruption of the Republic in action have all too rarely made it onto the big screen.
There are exceptions, of course, and one of them is Steven Spielberg’s splendid “Lincoln,” which is, strictly speaking, about a president trying to scare up votes to get a bill passed in Congress. It is of course about a lot more than that, but let’s stick to the basics for now. To say that this is among the finest films ever made about American politics may be to congratulate it for clearing a fairly low bar. Some of the movie’s virtues are, at first glance, modest ones, like those of its hero, who is pleased to present himself as a simple backwoods lawyer, even as his folksy mannerisms mask a formidable and cunning political mind.
After a brutal, kinetic beginning — a scene of muddy, hand-to-hand combat that evokes the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”— “Lincoln” settles down into what looks like the familiar pageantry and speechifying of costume drama. A flock of first-rate character actors parades by in the heavy woolen plumage of the past. The smaller, plainer America of the mid-19th century is evoked by the brownish chiaroscuro of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, by the mud, brick and wood of Rick Carter’s production design and by enough important facial hair to make the young beard farmers of 21st-century Brooklyn weep tears of envy.
The most famous and challenging beard of them all sits on the chin of Daniel Day-Lewis, who eases into a role of epic difficulty as if it were a coat he had been wearing for years. It is both a curiosity and a marvel of modern cinema that this son of an Anglo-Irish poet should have become our leading portrayer of archaic Americans. Hawkeye (in “Last of the Mohicans”), Bill the Butcher (“Gangs of New York”), Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”) — all are figures who live in the dim borderlands of memory and myth, but with his angular frame and craggy features, Mr. Day-Lewis turns them into flesh and blood.
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