When you have one of the most accomplished directors in cinema history directing arguably the greatest actor of our generation who is portraying the United States’ greatest President, you expect great things. You can also expect an abundance of hardware over the next three months as well.
Lincoln doesn’t disappoint. Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest of character actors; he completely immerses himself in his roles. This one is no different. As an amateur historian, I have done more than my fair share of study on our sixteenth president and Day-Lewis is as an accurate portrayal as any I’ve seen, and there have been many good ones. The mannerisms such as his gangly, slightly hunched, lurching gait to his slow, and back-woodsy story telling, in his high pitched voice, are believable in every sense. This IS Abraham Lincoln. Day-Lewis is entrancing in the role, so much so that as the modern day viewer, you get to be the proverbial fly on the wall.
Another great performance in Lincoln is Tommy Lee Jones as radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. For me, Jones has a career littered with as many poor, disinterested performances as great ones. He was at his best in this film. Stevens was a fierce abolitionist who had a reputation for supporting minorities and the downtrodden his whole career. Historically, he is blamed for the strict Reconstruction enforced upon the South after the war. The film briefly touches on the difference of opinion about Reconstruction between Stevens and Lincoln, who favored a much gentler, forgiving stance than did Stevens and the radicals. Lincoln’s death took away Stevens’ biggest obstacle in his wish to punish the South. John Wilkes Booth did as big a disservice to the South as any man in the Post-Civil War era. Lincoln would have promoted a forgiving Reconstruction and instead, Stevens got his way and the rest is, well, history, and led to a century of hatred and misundersting between the two geographical factions.
A few more names need to be mentioned for their performances in this picture. James Spader was delightful as W.N. Bilbo, who was what we might categorize as an early lobbyist of sorts. Sally Field as the mentally unstable Mary Todd Lincoln and Lee Pace as Representative Fernando Wood also stood to me.
Historically, Lincoln was very accurate. Spielberg encompassed as much of the President’s story as he could within the restraints of only one month’s time of his presidency. Lincoln suffered from melancholy, which today we know is depression. This was a life long malady for the President, made worse by the stress of the job, casualty figures (from both sides), and the death of his son Willie, which is dealt with in the film. The President also had to constantly deal with what we call today a high maintenance wife. Mary Todd Lincoln, while probably not outright insane, was a constant burden during his presidency. There were battles between the First Lady and Congress, which are subtly alluded to in the film, that didn’t help Lincoln at times when dealing with his political opponents. Lincoln also suffered from nightmares and premonitions. He was a darker man than is widely known by the general public. He put up a good front with his light, upbeat, unpolished mannerisms. Lincoln does a great job of giving us a true sense of his personality.
Ultimately, Abraham Lincoln was a grand manipulator and a political genius. That is why he is considered our greatest president. Every politician in Washington, from his enemies to his cabinet, all thought they were smarter than Lincoln. The President was a patient man who was willing to slowly lead people to his way of seeing things. In the case this movie focuses on, the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the President does not have time to be patient. Everyone knows the war is coming to an end and if the amendment isn’t passed before the war is over, it would never pass. Honest Abe was willing to bribe and cajole opponents into voting his way. There is a line in the film that was perfect. To greatly paraphrase, it went something like this – never has such a just cause been won by such corruption by such an honest of a man. You get the picture. Lincoln did what he had to insure the passing of the most important legislation to our country’s history since the Bill of Rights. If Lincoln had not pulled this rabbit out of his stove top hat, how long would it have been before it would have passed? No one knows but it would have probably been decades because the southern states would not have ratified it if it passed after they returned to the Union.
My favorite scenes are the ones that take place on the floor of the House of Representatives during the month long congressional debate over the 13th Amendment. It was a different time and the debates were much more entertaining back then. The insults were not subtle and were made face to face, not through the media. Congressional debates were loud, almost tavern brawling affairs (Senator Charles Sumner was beaten as his desk in the Senate Chamber by Preston Brooks for an insult during a debate). The film does a great job giving us a flavor of the times through these accurately depicted scenes.
The movie wasn’t perfect. The story did drag down when it was focused on Lincoln’s oldest son Robert, who wanted to join the army against his parents’ wishes. While this was a real issue in Lincoln’s life, the film puttered along during these scenes. Also, I wish Spielberg would have done a better job informing the audience of some of the historical, satellite characters. If you don’t have a degree in History, there is a good chance you don’t know who Preston Blair was or his role in the government, yet he has a significant role in the film. Lincoln’s cabinet, maybe the President’s biggest opponents in Washington, goes largely unidentified in the movie, even though they are in a couple of major scenes. There are a couple of very minor inaccuracies in the film but they really have little to do with the momentous events which take place in the scope of the film and only the history dorks like myself will have noticed.
I highly recommend this movie. It is an incredibly important part of our nation’s history and there are lessons to be learned in the current political arena. The film deals with the importance of bipartisan cooperation on points of great bearing. Today’s politicians should take notes. The movie is rated PG-13, mainly for a bit of swearing and two brief, yet gruesome battle related images. Whether you love history, or well acted, well directed films, this is a must see and will certainly win its fair share of hardware in the coming months. The film drew significant applause during the showing I attended at it was well deserved.
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