How do you make a movie about a man whose personal secretary once said, “His was the greatest character since Christ.” For starters, get the greatest actor of this generation, Daniel Day-Lewis to play Lincoln.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the most popular director in history at the helm. Note, I did not say “greatest” director, but Steven Spielberg is remarkably in tune with public tastes.
It doesn’t hurt to use excellent source material. In this case, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
All that’s left is to choose the best actors available to complement Lewis’ towering interpretation of the Lincoln mystique.
Lincoln is easily the most complex of our presidents. One could say Lincoln was so guarded with self-revelation as to be virtually unknowable. No doubt this is the reason myth holds as much sway as reality in our national perception of the man.
The film does not chronicle Lincoln’s life, his presidency or even the Civil War. The film concentrates on Lincoln’s ultimately successful efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. If you don’t know what the 13th Amendment is, please consider retaking the third grade.
This brief period in Lincoln’s life tells us as much about his character as we are likely to know.
I could use a term like “nuanced” to describe Day’s performance as Lincoln, but the word “heroic” comes to my mind. Perhaps because Lewis is European, he is not as inundated with the Lincoln Myth as an American actor might be.
We cannot know Lincoln, but Lewis’ performance gives us at least a glimpse into the character of our greatest president. Lewis does not play Lincoln as a hick idiot-savant with a good heart.
Lewis’ Lincoln is a man who uses his rural and self-educated background to disarm and ultimately overpower lesser men who would stand in the way of his perceived duty to re-integrate the Union. Lewis’ re-enactment of Lincoln’s thunderous statement, “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power—you will procure me these votes” is breathtaking.
Lincoln did not ensure the passage of the amendment alone. Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful Pennsylvania representative, portrayed by an excellent Tommy Lee Jones, played a major role in its passage.
At one point, Stevens is cornered on the House floor by N.Y. Rep. Fernando Wood, who is attempting to get Stevens to admit his interpretation of equality that includes all men, including African Americans.
Stevens turns the tables on Wood telling him he certainly does not consider Wood to be his equal and that the purpose of the amendment is equality before the law. Sadly, something today’s Republicans believe applies only to corporations and the religious right.
The bill was passed.
As Stevens wryly comments, “The greatest measure of the century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Sally Field does an excellent job portraying Mary Todd Lincoln not as a psychopath, but as a grieving mother who is overwhelmed by the death of her child, Willie, and events far beyond the pale of her scope.
Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, one of my favorite young actors, portrays Lincoln’s slightly estranged son, Robert, longing for a closer relationship with his father, yet wanting to serve the Union cause in uniform. An argumentative scene between the two brilliantly displays the humanity of two men who cannot quite see eye-to-eye.
Some of Lincoln’s great strengths were a steadfast belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity and his deep and unswerving faith that only a unified and free America would ensure this nation’s survival. Lincoln was willing to procure this survival by any means available.
To be fair, the movie is very long and I think it drags in a couple of places. Particularly, the final vote on the 13th Amendment is over long, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.
We know what happens to Lincoln in the end but it comes as a shock nonetheless. Spielberg, who is given to over-sentimentalizing on occasion, handles Lincoln’s death with a deft hand, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks.
Although the movie is some two-and-a-half hours long, no one moved for several minutes after its conclusion. It serves us well to be reminded that in this day of the pettiest and most self-serving politics imaginable that one man cared enough to put aside his own interests, indeed his own life, “That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Regardless of party affiliation, call your local congressman and tell him or her to learn something about putting the country’s welfare above that of his or her respective party.