As a Canadian I have a limited understanding of the role Abraham Lincoln played on the US and world stage. When I was on a grade 8 trip to Washington DC I visited the Lincoln Memorial, Ford Theatre, and the house where he died - fascinated, as all 13 year olds must be by the blood-stained pillow on display there. Of course we stopped at Gettysburg on our way to Washington.
I knew that the 16th President rose from humble beginnings. I knew that he presideed over the Civil War. I knew that he freed the slaves. I knew that he was assassinated. I recited portions of the Gettysburg address for school assignments. When I picture Lincoln I picture a tall, craggy, bearded man, in a black top hat.
That is the prior knowledge that went with me into the theatre yesterday to see Stephen Speilberg's latest offering - Lincoln. Given the prominence that the Civil war would likely play in this movie I was a bit nervous going in - given Speilberg's graphic retelling of previous wars on screen. However, the feint of heart need not stay away as there's very little battlefield action here, and what there is merely sets the tone for certain political necessities that follow from ending the war so that the United States is once again whole.
Speilberg's Lincoln is not a biopic. It’s a look at just the last days of his life as he struggles to have the 13th Amendment freeing slaves passed by the House of Representatives. More than anything else, the film is an intricate examination of the politics of its time with telling parallels to today's politics of division.Fearful that the previously enacted Emancipation Proclamation might not stand up to legal challenges, Lincoln gets surprisingly steely as he insists that this simply must be done if slavery is to be permanently eradicated. The problem is getting the votes - to this end he enlists the help of Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to twist the arms of recently defeated Democrats to convince them to support the Bill prior to their leaving Washington.
To help make this happen, Seward brings in a trio of arm-twisters, the 1860s versions of today's lobbyists, who are charged by a president not shy about saying he is "clothed in immense power" to use any means necessary to round up the needed congressional votes. This trio, amusingly played by John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, are as close to comic relief as "Lincoln" gets.
The president also relies on the help of Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), powerful chairman of the House Way and Means Committee and a fiery and often irascible advocate of the abolitionist movement. When Jones first appeared on the screen I thought 'dear lord, couldn't they have done something with his hair?' However, when I got home yesterday I did some 'googling' and discovered that Stevens was well known for his ill-fitting and ill-suiting wig. You get past this very quickly once Jones opens his mouth and barks out some of Stevens' famous lines - an irascible, vitriolic abolitionist ("the meanest man in Congress" according to some) Stevens is just getting warmed up when he calls an opponent a "fatuous nincompoop."
What a dream role for Jones! IU is readily apparent how much he loves it as he rises to his feet to bark at the opposition.
The key player, obviously, is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. No one needs to be told what an amazing actor he is, but even those used to the way he disappears into roles will be startled by the marvelously relaxed way he morphs into this character and becomes Lincoln. While his heroic qualities are visible when they're needed, Day-Lewis' Lincoln is a human, not the legend many have studied for years in history class. We see a man, stooped and weary after four years of civil war but still able to find a largeness of spirit and a genuine sense of humor. He easily goes from strategizing towards the end of the war, to laying on the floor next to his sleeping son, to consoling his distraught wife.
To that end, the fireworks in the film are not reserved for the House of Representatives. We see them inside the White House as well. Sally Field fully realizes the complicated role of Mary Todd Lincoln, alternately supportive of her husband or so emotionally overwrought as to be a thorn in his side. There was some controversy about Field being given the role - 10 years older than Day Lewis yet in real life Mary Toss Lincoln was 10 years younger than her husband. Field fought for the part and she nailed it.
This is the second movie that we have seen in recent weeks where we were well aware of the outcome of the story before the first opening scenes. As with Argo through the skills of the film's director, editor, and writer the audience is still left on tenderhooks . . . will they or won't they pass the amendment? In fairness, Argo got this better but did so through a made up story - historical revisionism whereas Lincoln avoids rewriting history to the same extent.
Having recently spent the past 18 months following the US election from this side of the border and listening to the vitriolic spew from all ends of the political spectrum I have thought more than once 'how does a nation recover from this?'
Lincoln provides some small solace as the Congress depicted is one that many modern folks would recognize - a body containing a mixed bag of blowhards (although Stevens would use alternative and amusing adjectives to describe 'em). Some of the politicians are depicted as decided small-minded, others appear intent on swimming against the obvious tides of history. Many express distrust of the President as a man who's motives are impure. Mind you, much of this was common for the 1800s, one likes to think of things as improving over time so perhaps there is no solace to be found in returning to the politics of an earlier, rough era.
As a final note - what a treat it was to see a movie geared to adults without sex, super heroes, spies, gun fights, swearing, and violence. How nice to go to the movies, escape for a spell, and to be left with much to ponder and to think about.