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Movie review: Lincoln

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On September 18, 1858 in Charlestown, Ill., during his fourth debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln stated the following: "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races." The remarks were in response to Douglas's attempts to portray Lincoln as a radical who was not just opposed to slavery, but in favor of racial equality. Lincoln's words were simply a necessary part of his efforts for the greater good. You know, just politics.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a thriller about politics that takes place between January and April of 1865. The debate passage above is never mentioned, but we see more of Lincoln's politicking. The Civil War is about to end and Lincoln is determined to push through a constitutional amendment banning slavery before it does. He figures that once the war end and the southern states became voting members of the union again, the amendment won't have a prayer, so he has to ram it through now, by any means necessary.

Tony Kushner's fine screenplay offers a close-up view of the political wheeling and dealing of the time, with the wily Lincoln showing how adept he can be at the often corrupt activity. It's fascinating, and sad, to see him in the thick of it, but it goes a long way towards making that terrible debate quote more understandable. Not any less repulsive, but at least more understandable.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln, once again bringing his magic to a role. He looks like the man, he sounds like what you'd expect Lincoln to sound like - he presents Lincoln as a sometimes melancholy leader, soft spoken but capable of ferocity when required, and given to storytelling. His Lincoln has the lofty qualities we're all aware of, but is equally skilled at getting down and dirty to accomplish his goals. Fascinating man, fascinating story. Charming quiet moments with his youngest son temper the boisterous finagling.

For the most part Spielberg avoids his trademarked sappiness. Every now and then John Williams' surprisingly well-behaved score shoves its way to the foreground for a little emotional bullying, but the bulk of the film is presented without excess holiness.

The period atmosphere is earthy and adds to the production's verisimilitude. The rest of the cast is nearly as impressive as Day-Lewis. Tommy Lee Jones does wonders as Pennsylvania Rep, Thaddeus Stevens, as does Daniel Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson are pluses in short, but punchy appearances as party operatives/thugs working the illegal side of the persuasion business.

Two questionable choices are Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Lincoln's rebellious son Robert. Field is so well-known for her in-your-face characters that her first appearance is distracting, but she does a skillful job presenting the First Lady as more than a mentally-ill burden. Gordon-Levitt is solid - it's his storyline that pales in comparison to the other goings-on.

I wish Lincoln had addressed the president's willingness in the debates to use racism to combat racism. I wish it had ended at one of its natural stopping points and avoided revisiting the tragedy at Ford's Theater. But the movie I must address is the one Spielberg made, not the one he didn't, and it's quite good, much better than I thought it would be.

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FILM CLIPS

Great American Songbook Movie Series
Heartland Truly Moving Pictures and Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook Initiative are teaming up this fall to present a series of classic movie musicals on a big screen at the Palladium. Feinstein, who just donated $1 million to his own initiative, will be in the house Friday, Nov. 16 to introduce An American in Paris and sign copies (from 5:30-7 p.m.) of his new book, The Gershwins and Me. The Gershwins of the title are, of course, George and Ira; the "Me" is Feinstein, who worked as a librarian for Ira Gershwin from the late '70s, a job which poised him to become both an interpreter and historian of the Great American Songbook. The series starts with four screenings this week, and continues with one Friday screening per month through March. Tickets are $7.50 and all screenings but one will be from Blu-Ray. - NUVO editors
Nov. 16, 2 p.m.: The Sound of Music (1965)
Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m.: An American in Paris (1951)
Nov. 17, 10:30 a.m.: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra plays West Side Story
This is one heckuva weekend for fans of the American movie musical. Back in the day (for our purposes, the '20s), the finest movie houses weren't content to bring in a pianist or organist to accompany the latest epic; no, they had house orchestras, knocking out sometimes a score a week to mighty beasts like, say, Intolerance or Wings. Hilbert Circle Theatre brought in an orchestra or two in its day, and it returns to that era as the ISO performs the score to West Side Story, while the film plays out on the big screen with effects and vocal tracks intact. After a couple performances on the Circle, the Palladium, with a screen already up for the Songbook series, will pick up the final screening. David Newman will conduct; tickets range from $37-85. - NUVO editors
Nov. 16 and 17, 8 p.m. @ Hilbert Circle Theatre
Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m. @ The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts

IU Cinema: Walter Salles
The Brazilian filmmaker will present four of his road movies this week at Bloomington's IU Cinema. Films are $3 each. - NUVO editors
Nov. 16, 9:30 p.m.: Foreign Land (1996)
Nov. 17, 7 p.m.: Central Station (1998)

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