Saturday, November 17, 2012


by Pa Rock
Movie Aficionado

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (or perhaps more aptly, Tony Kushner's Lincoln)  is a marvelous piece of historical drama that is so remarkably well done that it leaves very little room for constructive criticism.  The visuals are amazing, taking the viewers back into a very believable 1865 - from the battlefields, to the streets of Washington, DC, to the interiors of the Capitol and the White House as they must have looked during the American Civil War.

But the visuals would have been nothing more than classy curiosity without the rich, evocative language that Kushner pours onto Spielberg's palette.  I heard an interview with Kushner in which he said that he explored the history of every word that he used in the screenplay, making certain that the movie's vocabulary was completely true to the times.  But it is so much more than just using the correct words.  Kushner's pen (yes, he uses a fountain pen for all of his writing) spawns clever and witty dialogue that defines the historical characters sharply and with vigor.  Abraham Lincoln, in particular, slips seamlessly into his homey stories that do so much to make him real to the people sitting in the audience.

Lincoln, based on the book, Team of Rivals, by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a recounting of the political machinations that went into the passage of the 13th Amendment (official emancipation of all slaves in the Untied States) by the House of Representatives.  President Lincoln is viewed through the lens of shrewd political operative, statesman, family man, and war-weary leader of the nation.

Spielberg as the director, the person who creates the vision, and Kushner as the screenwriter, the person who gives voice to the vision, were ensured success in their endeavor by the wonderful cast that they were able to bring to this project.    Daniel Day-Lewis, as Abraham Lincoln, owns every scene that he is in.  Day-Lewis makes himself into the sixteenth President, body and soul - mannerisms and voice.  He is folksy, funny, angry, demanding, conniving, and so very tired of war.   And he is determined - steadfast in the belief that the deaths of over half-a-million people have to have a noble result - the end of slavery in America.  Getting the 13th Amendment passed and enacted is to be his last battle, and the Lincoln crafted by Daniel Day-Lewis seems to exude the knowledge that his power is coming to an end.  He must complete this last task, one that he sees as the justification for the long, bloody war.

Sally Field nails the role of Mary Todd Lincoln.  Lincoln's wife, often dismissed as crazy, or at least emotionally disturbed, by historians, was obviously a complex character.  She was a southerner by birth and had already suffered the death of one of her four sons by the time the Lincoln's moved into the White House.  Another small son, Willie, died in the White House during the Civil War.   At the time of the events in this movie, the Lincoln's had one small son, Tad, living with them, and a grown son, Robert, attending college in Boston and chomping at the bit to join the Union Army and serve his country.  Mary Lincoln was certain that if he joined the military, he, too, would die.  The Mary Todd Lincoln that Sally Field brings to the screen in this movie is a mother desperate not to lose any more of her children.  

Tommy Lee Jones is Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania who was Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.  Stevens was a "radical" Republican, one who was for strong pursuit of the war and making sure the Confederacy suffered serious and enduring consequences for their betrayal of the union.  Jones's Thaddeus Stevens is clever and verbose, and he has some of the best  lines in the movie.  He is a tough opponent in a debate, yet he can also hold back and be almost chivalrous when necessary.  One of the sharpest verbal exchanges in  Lincoln occurs when Thaddeus Stevens is trying to enter a White House reception but has to stand in the line and take a very smart dressing-down by the President's wife.

One more role of note is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's rendition of the Lincolns' eldest son, Robert.  Gordon-Levitt, like Day-Lewis, is a highly talented actor who has taken on several quirky and challenging roles as he grew in his profession.  There is a scene in this movie where father and son confront each other outside of a Union field hospital.  The President has taken his son there in an effort to demonstrate that war is is not romantic and glamorous, but the visit results in Robert feeling even more guilty about not serving.  In the confrontative scene, the President slaps Robert across the face, and the young man walks off vowing to enlist in spite of his parents' desires.

The weariness of Abraham Lincoln, the loneliness and sadness brought on by his responsibilities for directing a war and planning how to bring the country back together, can be seen clearly at two points toward the end of the movie.  The first is as Lincoln rides his horse through the still smoldering battlefield of Petersburg, weaving among the lifeless bodies who stare at him through vacant eyes.  For those dead soldiers the war is over, but the lonely rider will never know peace.  The other scene of immense personal desolation is of Lincoln and Mary riding in the carriage to Ford's Theatre on what was to be the last night of the President's life.  Daniel Day-Lewis in that carriage is a man whose life is draining away,  He knows it, Mary knows it, and the camera shows it with an unflinching eye.

I can't say enough good things about Lincoln.    You will be hearing it mentioned again, and again, and again - at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.  It is getting lots of hype - and all of it is well deserved.

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