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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

At the Movies - Lincoln


Several months ago, I saw Stephen Spielberg’s Academy Award nominated, Lincoln, but chose to wait until after Oscar night to give my review. Mainly, I wanted to see if Daniel Day-Lewis made history by being the only man to win the prize for Best Actor three times. With a splendid performance, complete with hunched shoulders and spindly stature, Day-Lewis did make history. He gives a fresh rendering of the great man, combining fragility with strength that made me reaffirm Abraham Lincoln as my favorite US President.   

The focus of the film is the period before the close of the Civil War where Lincoln is in a political battle to secure the end of slavery. It is the dilemma surrounding the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that drives the story. National support is based on the belief that the end of slavery will hasten the end of the war, but if peace is negotiated, then that support might wane for fear of what a mass of free slaves might do to an already weak economy. Lincoln realizes he has a short window of time to garner support for the Amendment and have it ratified before the war comes to a close. Others around him, both Confederate and Union, realize the same thing, which sets up a political chess game that is quite enthralling. To Lincoln, this is a game which must be won at all costs. In his opinion, slavery must be cut off at the head, with absolutely no possibility of being resurrected.

Immediately, our tall, lanky, somewhat strange-looking sixteenth president becomes a hero with a mission. We know its outcome, but the ride he takes is what entertains. The politics and lobbying involved are fascinating and revealed my ignorance of American history. At every turn, there is opposition that weighs heavily on Lincoln’s soul, particularly from his wife, Mary Todd, who is played by Sally Field in one of her best roles since Norma Rae. Watching her rail on her husband, hurling one accusation after another, feigning mental anguish and throwing child-like tantrums made me feel like the world’s best wife. After reading about how much Lincoln adored her, despite her mental instability, I gained even more respect for the man.

With the fate of the Amendment riding on the House of Representatives, Lincoln launches a campaign to secure votes. He hires three bumbling lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Time Blake Nelson) to solicit support from lame duck House members, promising cushy jobs in the newly reformed government. Think The Three Stooges stuck in the 1860s, minus Moe’s bowl haircut. My favorite was Spader, who looked a little rounder and less handsome than what I remembered from his ‘80 and ‘90s romance films. He added great humor to the movie which lightened the intensity of the drama.

I’ll spare you the additional political intrigue, other than to say the foundation of the Amendment’s support lies with the movie’s most colorful character, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Stevens is a radical, abolitionist member of the Republican Party whose tongue and wit are as sharp as the swords being swung on the battlefield. Watching him duel retorts with his opponents in the House is a wondrous sight to behold. How I would love to go back in time and be a fly on the wall, watching one of the most important battles in our history take place in the halls of the nation’s capital. The role couldn’t have been better cast than with Tommy Lee Jones. I believe he is one of America’s greatest actors.

The best parts of the movie were the gentle, tender moments with Lincoln’s little son, Tad. I teared up at seeing the tired, worn-out head of state kneel to the floor and allow the sleepy boy to climb on his back and head to bed after a long day. It provided a nice glimpse of the human side of the loving father. Also, there were great jokes and stories with deep philosophical morals that showcased the president’s raconteur abilities and vast intellectual brain power. I don’t think I’ll ever hear the term “Euclid’s Triangle” without seeing Daniel Day-Lewis wrapped in an old blanket explaining the simple truths of life to two young soldiers.

The race to secure enough support in the House builds to a nice climax, leaving the viewer on the edge of his or her seat. Lincoln uses power, delays, intervention, and persuasion to succeed—by just two votes. Finally, the Thirteenth Amendment is ratified and slavery ends, with the war coming to a close several months later at Appomattox Court House. But sadly, the end of the Civil War marks the end of one of our country’s greatest leaders.


*** SPOILER ALERT ***

I wasn’t wild about the final scene where Lincoln seemed to be deified as he delivered his second inaugural address. The image of him being regaled as a god left me a little unsettled— he was a human being with flaws like all of us. But overall the movie was emotional, informative, and entertaining.

A final note: I loved how the filmmakers threw in a very important social commentary toward the end of the movie that still causes dissention amongst some old-line Southerners—interracial marriage. When Thaddeus Stevens takes a copy of the ratified Amendment home, he presents it to his black housekeeper, who turns out to be more than a cook and cleaner. As he slips into bed, she is there next to him, referred to as his “darling.” Very well-placed and strategic in its revelation of Steven’s character. Nicely and cleverly done, Mr. Spielberg!

Lincoln is a movie “for the ages.” Add it to your home collection and enjoy great acting and directing and a terrific story where one steps into the final days of the great Abraham Lincoln.

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