Sweet Sixteen

If this year’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” didn’t instill you with the badassery of our 16th president, Steven Spielberg’s more conventional approach might just do the trick.

“Lincoln” is set during the final stages of the Civil War — more particularly, during the passing of the 13th Amendment. An urgent President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) along with his shrewd Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) assemble a rowdy trio of lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to gain patronage for these, at the time, “radical” Democrats. The war progresses as the House begins to sway in favor of amending the Constitution, and during these trying times Lincoln is not only shown as a politician, but as a fatherly figure. Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) returns home to protest for his enlistment in the Union Army while the underexposed Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) despairs over his safety. Personal and political strife intertwine and give the impression of Lincoln’s formidable temperament in any situation. He shows compassion and understanding toward those whom he affects with his policy but also exhibits an unrelenting and stern attitude toward his Cabinet.

The supporting cast, who deserved much more screen time, becomes indispensable players to what makes the film so poignant. An adamant Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and a reverent Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) become the focal points of the rising action — the vote on the 13th Amendment. Taking place in a crowded enclosure, the seemingly slow pace of counting votes becomes tense and agonizing. Filmed with peculiarly realistic setting, lighting and old-age mannerisms, the film draws you into the 1860s, where the lack of proper ventilation is quite palpable. What becomes so effective in the scene, and the film in its entirety, is how moments of non-action become the ones that are the most riveting.

Where the film falls short is the elevated representation of Lincoln as president. Spielberg is known to venerate historical genres to unrealistic heights, but the cinematography, musical score and stupendous cast greatly override those airs. And of course, historical interpretation and accuracy does affect the viewer. Spielberg renders Lincoln in a way that the audience may interpret him as a moral advocate of anti-slavery, although, as history knows, Lincoln did away with slavery to preserve the Union and uphold the Constitution — not because of his own moral beliefs. With the Battle of Wilmington placed anachronistically, most of the finer historical details do go unnoticed to the common viewer, but do not detract from what is at hand.

Surprisingly, splashes of humor adorn the script as alleviators of tense situations. Senators and representatives deliver witty insults to their opposing peers and our very own Lincoln doles out anecdotes of seemingly un-relatable situations to draw a laugh when it is most needed.

In the end, you are left with a refreshed memory of Lincoln’s history. Lincoln was one of the presidents you remembered most because, well, he was Lincoln. But this isn’t like the pages from your high school history textbook — in the film, Spielberg transforms a historical figure into a historical hero. Memorable performances immerse into what you wish you had learned in class. (B)