LAKE OCONEE — “Lincoln”
Rated PG-13 (for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language).
Let me be clear right at the outset: if you are a neo-confederate; one who longs for the days of plantation life and hate the very memory of Abraham Lincoln, take a hint from the title and toddle not into the theater for Mr. Spielberg's latest historical opus. Lincoln is neither a full-tilt iconoclastic portrayal nor is it so idolizing that one is compelled to genuflect while viewing. However, Lincoln-haters will claim otherwise, usually because they are more interested in present day politics than understanding the actual point of the film: that Lincoln had to manipulate divergent powers to achieve the passage of the 13th amendment for complicated reasons that torture the span of attention of most people today. Yet that is not the only problem for Spielberg's Lincoln.
I read in the New York Times, one historian's complaint that the depiction of blacks was insufficiently respectful of their influence on Lincoln. The opinion piece seems to me as if she was mostly eager to pinkies-up nitpick so she can read her words in the New York Times. Pathetic. I caught a few minutes of a talk show on C-Span that bemoaned the "white man's obsession" about the "heroic" Lincoln. Give me a break! From the far right and the far left, Lincoln (the man and the movie) is heckled.
Most people don't even know what the 13th Amendment was about---why not be grateful that a film is not claiming that it was an alien plot for world domination? This nearly two and a half hour film features no nudity and Mr. Lincoln does not kill zombies or vampires (those movies are now available on DVD), nor does he dress, talk, seduce, or prance about on the top of a moving train as Bond-James Bond did/does/will do. This is a Lincoln who practices his dexterity in logical thinking seasoned by a ribald joke here and there---the relevance of which most of his dour fellow politicians fail to grasp.
There is actually a speech in the film by Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) describing his rationalization for the necessity for the passage of the 13th amendment (it has to do with the president's war powers and the Supreme Court). Can you imagine people today actually sitting listening to that? I am stunned. Can the American public tolerate---much less pay---for 150 minutes of historical intellectual gymnastics? Mr. Spielberg thinks so. But I suspect he hedges his bet by 1) casting actors that profoundly possess their characters and 2) decorates his sets so impressively detailed that it is more of a moving oil tapestry from a Dutch Master than merely a film. Daniel Day-Lewis captures the reedy, high-pitched voice ascribed to Lincoln. He adopted his flat-footed walk so often described by observers. The make-up artists do a stupendous job of capturing his sly smile---actually a façade to mask his immense pain. Mr. Day-Lewis has captured Lincoln as no other before him and I dare say no one will ever surpass. His performance, delivered with such meticulous care, is nothing less than perfection. Mr. Day-Lewis gave the performance of his life.
Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln is stunning and touching; who can capture such a character without surrendering to caricature? She too surpasses all before her. I always felt for poor, disturbed Mary Todd. She was shrewish and more than a little dishonest. Spielberg did not hide her petulance, her spoiled personality, or the torment she caused her husband. This is neither a lunatic nor a fully sympathetic Mary Todd. And other members of the cast such as Hal Holbrook as the irascible Preston Blair, David Strathairn as William Seward, and James Spader as the political scoundrel W. N. Bilbo made me giddy with their flair for adding blood, flesh and flair in characters usually stuck lifelessly in the amber of history books.
My only criticism concerns Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens was a Pennsylvanian and hated the rebellious south. He cared little for being rational or reasonable; he was driven by his desire for racial equality, his passion---in more ways than one. Today, I would like to think, we would identify with his views---although I know I am probably wrong---many would still secretly oppose his racial views. Spielberg's Stevens probably speaks for the "official" 21st century but in the 19th century and this "presentism" just made me a little uncomfortable as did Mr. Jones' Tennessee twang---coming from the mouth of the bewigged Congressman from Pennsylvania. But now, it is I who is picking the proverbial nit.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have been a Lincoln student for nearly my entire life. I have read hundreds of books and articles on the 16th president. Every book and every article presents a slightly different Lincoln and film is no different. It is a visual depiction, not a comprehensive PhD Dissertation; it is not even a documentary. I think Mr. Spielberg wanted to show Lincoln the masterful politician and Lincoln the cerebral president (that he most certainly was) which is not often---even ever seen on the big screen.
The movie is based, in part, on Doris Kearns Goodwin's fantastic book, Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As a work of history, the movie may take liberties, skirt some issues and oversimplify, but at its core, it captures the soul, spirit, and genius of Lincoln.
As an art form, however, Lincoln (the movie) took my breath away. There was not a second of the film that was not a sight to behold. I hope it makes money. I hope people like it. If it is a disaster and ticket sales are dismal, filmmakers will remember that historical themed films, which feature such complex, intellectual dialogue, are a career-killer. I assumed they thought that already. Mr. Spielberg---perhaps only Mr. Spielberg---has the courage to respect his audience and not talk down to us.
I thank him for his respect. Lincoln earns five bow ties out of five.