It’s a perfect storm: Abraham Lincoln (our greatest president), portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis (Oscar-winning actor), and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg. How can you go wrong?
Having seen the film last weekend, not much did go wrong. The movie LINCOLN is based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (Goodwin is the redhead with a slight Boston accent who appears on a lot of PBS documentaries, and who occasionally offers pungent historical perspective on Sunday morning news programs). I hadn’t read “Team of Rivals” so I didn’t know the plot of LINCOLN. Would it be a full-scale bio-pic, or focus on Lincoln’s relationship with his generals? Actually, neither. The movie deals with Lincoln’s efforts to persuade Congress to adopt the 13th amendment to the Constitution – the first amendment in 60 years – and which officially outlawed slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential decree that freed slaves in the rebellious states).
The major players here are Lincoln himself, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), radical abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Straithairn). All are mesmerizing, but Day-Lewis and Field are absolutely uncanny. Field conveys the strangeness, paranoia, and fragility that we associate with Mary Todd Lincoln. And though we obviously don’t have recordings or film of the 16th president, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on characterization than Day-Lewis’s (who is British, no less!). His tender voice and touch of a Kentucky accent remain with you long after the movie ends. Day-Lewis gives us a Lincoln who is profound and sometimes humorous, yet whose seemingly endless patience can be shattered by moments of terrifying anger. Or in the case of his deceased son, grief.
Spielberg uses lighting that accurately depicts a pre-electric age, and props that convey 19th-century antiquity without being obtrusive. In one scene Lincoln is holding a mottled notebook. The colored mosaic pattern on the cover is exactly like old whaling logbooks I’d seen in the maritime library at Mystic Seaport. And in one of the many stories and anecdotes Lincoln uses to win over critics of the amendment, he uses whale hunting as an analogy, confounding everyone around him!
Just a few criticisms: some of the minor characters seem exaggerated, particularly a couple timid anti-amendment politicians. Also, a few scenes seemed overtly politically correct. The opening scene has Lincoln being lectured after a battle by a young black soldier. It may have been intended to emphasize Lincoln’s renowned modesty and liberality, but this would have never happened (the Black Panther Party was still a hundred years away). And one of the last scenes has Thaddeus Stevens climbing into bed with his black housekeeper, who then recited him the text of the newly-minted amendment. Although Stevens supposedly did have a common-law relationship with his “quadroon” housekeeper, I thought this was a bit of overkill (though at least one person I know felt just the opposite!).
Other than these small criticisms, LINCOLN was one “whale” of a movie. Even if you don’t care for history on an intellectual level, this film is a two-and-a-half hour time trip, with great acting to boot. It’s also a reminder that, as harsh as the political climate in America is today, it was nothing like during the War Between the States. It’s a small miracle that the country had a man like Lincoln, who physically and figuratively towered over everyone around him.
I give this movie 3 1/2 out of 4 stars. And if Day-Lewis and Field (and possibly Jones) don’t win Academy Awards, I’ll eat my stovepipe hat.