Nov 20, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Not until the plans were made, and executed, did the meaning of the date sink in.
Sure enough, though, I attended a screening of Lincoln last Monday, exactly 149 years to the day after the 16th president, on Nov. 19, 1863, ventured to the dedication of a new cemetery at Gettysburg and delivered the “few appropriate remarks” that became the most famous and meaningful speech in American history.
Those 272 words, memorialized and memorized by generations, form the basis of the very first scene of Steven Spielberg’s instant masterpiece. It comes from soldiers, both white and black, reading back the speech to Abe as he bids them farewell on their latest trip to the front lines.
Right there, and in every scene that follows, we are transformed back to a time when our nation’s very existence was still in question, and it took a particular, self-made genius from the Midwest to try and bind things back together amid fratricidal bloodshed unimaginable to our times.
From the moment it was known that Spielberg had gained the rights to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful Team of Rivals for the big screen, the apprehension, and excitement, grew. What would our most famous and imaginative filmmaker do with the large, overwhelming subject of the greatest president in our history?
Libraries are filled with exhaustive scholarship dealing with Abraham Lincoln. Add to it the multiple potrayals of him in movies and TV, and the inevitable caricature that emerges – tall man, beard, honest – are so ingrained that to shake that image is nearly impossible.
That’s the challenge Spielberg, and screenwriter Tony Kushner, faced. Skilled as they are, it still would have been quite easy, and quite understandable, for them to turn Lincoln into something sprawling and myopic, a life treatment of the man that would make him heroic, almost saintly.
Instead, they focus on a single issue – the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constiution, in January 1865, which would ban slavery everywhere and for all time. And they use that story to illustrate the rich political tenor of the times, and illuminate the man at the center of it all.
Daniel Day-Lewis has two Oscars, but his portrayal of Lincoln is something that will outshine anything else he has ever done, or ever will do.
It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears physically into the Lincoln persona, or that he accurately re-creates the high-pitched, frontier lilt that was his actual voice (and not the deep-throated imitations we’ve so often heard).
With his sublime range of talents, Day-Lewis gives us Lincoln as a fully formed human being, funny when telling stories, tender with his young son, patient with his wife, angry and fiery with his Cabinet, and empathetic to all, friends and enemies alike.
The incredible supporting cast does just as well. Sally Field’s Mary Lincoln is a force of nature, smart and terrifying, protective of her husband in ruthless ways, while grief-stricken over the loss of a son. David Strathairn, as William H. Seward, is masterful and subtle as a consummate politician who could do a lot, but lacked Lincoln’s full range of humanity.
Proving that it’s not just serious stuff, Spielberg has a lot of fun portraying the 1860s House of Representatives as a raucous, bunch full of pomposity, colorful insults and behavior more commonly seen in Britain’s House of Commons. Amid it all, Tommy Lee Jones, as the radical Thaddeus Stevens, gives a bravura performance.
Hal Holbrook (who has played Lincoln before), James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris – all of them add wonderful parts, too, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt giving an underrated turn as Robert Lincoln, a son not wanting to follow the same path as his melancholy father or mourning mother.
The film also looks and sounds terrific, as the dour, gray and haphazard setting of our nation’s capital, circa 1865, reminds us that it wasn’t always glamorous and posh, either at the White House or anywhere else. Credit, too, must go to the incomparable John Williams for a subtle, beautiful score that marvels in its understatement.
So many scenes in Lincoln are so well done, that none really stick out. Pieced together, though, they leave you heartbroken at the end, not just because Lincoln never lived to see the Union brought back together (much less the end of slavery), but because his intelligence, and his capacity to grow as a person and lead through that growth, is still something anyone elected to public office could still find useful.
Far more important than the awards it might earn, Lincoln teaches all of us, as Americans, that our most storied leaders had to do difficult things to bring us to a better place. And that Abraham Lincoln himself was not born great, but that his singular gifts and talents, combined with the course of human events, led him to a greatness that we still celebrate today.