Dec 07, 2012 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
It’s only natural, I know, but for the past two weeks I could not meet, talk to or email anyone without the inevitable question being asked, “Have you seen the Lincoln movie?” And every time my response — sometimes embarrassed, sometimes meek — was, “Not yet.”
I know, I know: it’s odd that I’m a Lincoln scholar and I did not run out and see perhaps the greatest movie ever made on Lincoln the minute it hit theaters. Unfortunately, time, work and family conspired against me. But, just as powerful a reason for my delay was my fear that this supposedly masterful movie would turn out to be irritating, ignorant junk.
I find historical movies and historical fiction difficult to get through if I know the topic intimately because I know the facts. I understand that fiction and Hollywood need to change things around for a good story, a good conflict, a good character, etc., but they also often change things out of ignorance, and, well, just because they can. And I can’t abide that.
So. After studying Abraham Lincoln, his family, his life, his presidential administration for nearly 20 years now, what’s my take on the movie “Lincoln”?
It was pretty spectacular.
First and foremost, Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was uncanny, mesmerizing, stunning. He looked like him, he talked like him — and yes Lincoln did have such a high-pitched voice — and he even walked flat-footed the way we know that Lincoln did. But more than that, Lewis imbued Lincoln, he channeled him, he was the president. The stoop-shouldered way the weight of the war bent him down; the way he weaved humorous stories and anecdotes into his conversations and nobody laughed louder than him at his own jokes; the way the small miracle of sunlight on his face was a simple reprieve and enjoyment from the cares of office. These were incredible.
What was equally enjoyable to watch were the relatively unknown aspects of Lincoln’s character being shown: his ability to get angry and his mastery of the game of politics.
Abraham Lincoln today is a secular god, a monolithic figure almost too great to seem real, and so many people have trouble accepting the truth that he was, beneath all of his greatness, still just a man. People doubted and ridiculed him; people questioned his judgments; his children died and his wife caused him immense grief as well as joy.
Lincoln was an inveterate politician beginning in his early 20s when he was a simple postmaster in the village of New Salem and ran for the state legislature. By the time of his presidency, he was master of the game. And as the movie showed so well in its microcosm of four months, throughout his entire term in the White House Lincoln outmaneuvered all of the best politicians of the day.
Lincoln also could get angry at people, as was also evinced in the movie. He was not perfect and magnanimous and equal-tempered his entire life. We know he lost his temper with numerous people in Washington, in Springfield, and of course, with his wife for her vagaries.
One of the best examinations of these little-known facets of Lincoln’s character — his political acumen, his anger and cruelty, his depression, the origins of his hatred for slavery and the state of his marriage — can be found in separate essays in a book by Michael Burlingame titled “The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.” The book was revolutionary and controversial when it was published in 1994, and Burlingame is one of the most meticulous Lincolns scholars out there. So I highly recommend it for anyone interested.
But back to Lincoln’s anger. The one scene in the movie I have been asked about multiple times, and was somewhat prepared for when I actually saw it, was when Lincoln slapped his oldest son Robert across the face in the midst of an argument over Robert’s demand to join the Union army. “Did that really happen?” I’ve been asked over and over.
Two words: absolutely not. Two more words: absolutely ridiculous.
Lincoln never hit Robert like that, and in fact the Lincolns did not practice corporal punishment of their children at all. Their parental philosophy was “Let the children have a good time,” to which nearly everyone in Washington responded with the comment that the Lincolns’ two youngest sons, Willie and Tad, were a couple of spoiled brats.
In fact, having spent 10 years researching and writing a biography of Robert Lincoln, I can claim with certainty that everything about Robert Lincoln in that movie was incorrect, except maybe his name. But actually, even his name was wrong in the sense that Sally Field’s Mary Lincoln called him “Robbie.” Neither of the Lincolns ever called him Robbie. Nor did Robert have a mustache. Nor was he such a rude, angry, stuck up prig as portrayed in the movie.
The portrayal of Mary Lincoln, on the other hand, was spot-on. She was smart, strong, witty and sarcastic; but also vulnerable, pitiable and self-indulgent. So was the real Mary.
There are numerous accolades and further criticisms I could give this movie, but space constraints force me to limit myself. But there were so many great aspects: the sets, the costumes, the characters and even the comic relief. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal as firebrand Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was especially memorable.
As anyone who knows me knows well, I am not afraid to give my opinion on things when asked. So anyone who wants to hear more of my Lincoln ramblings or wants some suggested reading (such as “Tad Lincoln and his Father,” by F. Lauristan Bullard, for a wonderful look at Abe and Tad in the White House, which the movie so heart-warmingly showed), let me know — just be prepared the onslaught of my answers…
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.
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