Tuesday, June 25, 2013


(November 2012, U.S.)

As an elementary school kid in the 1970s, my education and understanding of Abraham Lincoln were, at best, limited, dogmatic and just borderline short of folklore. You know...the poor kid who grew up in a log cabin, the bestowed title of "Honest Abe", the 16th President of the United States who ended slavery, the Emancipation Proclomation, the assassination by John Wilkes Booth...stuff like that. And despite what I've come to understand are great performances by such actors as Raymond Massey in ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1938) and Henry Fonda in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), the only film I'd ever seen before about Lincoln was a rather forgettable 1977 piece of work called THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY which did nothing more than dramatize certain conspiracy theories concerning the infamous assassination of 1865. I also admit to not being an avid reader of historical non-fiction. So, add all of that with the fact that I never, ever miss a film by Steven Spielberg and you basically have what sums up to be the first real cinematic (and even educational) glimpse of Abraham Lincoln as the United States President and the man himself in LINCOLN. It's also due to the fact that I trust Mr. Spielberg to remain as accurate as possible with regard to history and facts that I'm willing to take his epic historical drama true to heart, whether it's all historically perfect or not (define perfect, anyway!)

Because the subject matter of Lincoln's life is one that could easily fill the screen ten times over, this particular film is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography called "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" and covers the final four months of Lincoln's life, focusing on the President's efforts in January 1865 to have the Thirteenth Amendment which would formally ebolish slavery to the United States Constitution passed by the United States House of Representatives. Expecting the Civil War to end very shortly but concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts once the war has concluded and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states, Lincoln feels considers it gravely imperative to pass the amendment by the end of January, thus removing any possibility that slaves who have already been freed may end up being re-enslaved. The Radical Republicans fear the amendment will merely be defeated by others who wish to delay its passage.

(are you getting all of this so far??)

The support of the amendment by Republicans in the border states is not yet assured either, since they prioritize the issue of ending the war. And even if all of them are ultimately brought on board, the amendment will still require the support of several Democratic congressmen if it's to inevitably pass. With dozens of Democrats having just become lame-ass ducks after losing their re-election campaigns in the fall of 1864, some of Lincoln's advisors believe that he should wait until the new Republican-heavy Congress is seated, presumably giving the amendment an easier road to passage. Lincoln, however, remains persistently adamant about having the amendment in place and the issue of slavery settled before the war is concluded and the southern states are readmitted into the Union. The amendment approaches the critical vote on the House floor and at the moment of truth, Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) decides to moderate his strict and passionate statements about racial equality to help the amendment's chances of passage. The vote proceeds and narrowly passes by a margin of only two votes. History is made and we've watched it happen because of a good man's and an effective President's dream.

All of this, of course, is history that any curious and tenacious person could look up for themselves and discover how much of it is truly accurate to the letter. LINCOLN as a film also serves to show us a little bit of who the man was a husband to an ill wife Mary Todd (played by Sally Field) and the father of two boys (you know, I'm not even sure I knew Lincoln had any children before this film!). The powerful performance by English actor Daniel Day-Lewis (replacing originally cast Liam Neeson) as President Lincoln shows us not only a stressful commander-in-cheif who must contend with the most challenging obstacle of his career but also a man who, at many times, is an avid storyteller with a sociable sense of humor. The long stretches of inspiring dialogue and the camera's close-up shots at each time may very well seem predictable when you're telling a historical tale like this one, but it's easily overlooked when you're watching Lewis on screen deeply immersed and invested in his character and you can actually feel like you have the legendary Mr. Lincoln sitting right in front of you. This is pure triumphant historical drama at its best...and its best is commanded by none other than the great Steven Spielberg. In today's cinematic world of comic book crap, one cannot avoid to take such artistic endeavors seriously (thank goodness I still do!).

But wait...even the great Spielberg is not without flaw in this film and I'll tell you why. The moment when we learn that Lincoln has been shot just doesn't sit right with me. The last time we see the man alive, he's won a great victory over the Representatives and over slavery. We watch him walk down a long corridor and slowly fade out of sight to what we already know will become his ultimate fate. Right then and there the film should have faded out and gone right to end credits. If, on the other hand, you're going to open "Pandora's Box" on his assassination and his death, then for Christ sakes, treat us to the big event in its entirety instead of only hinting at its occurrence. In other words, give me all or give me nothing!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Abraham Lincoln: "It was right after the revolution, right after peace had been concluded, and Ethan Allen went to London to help our new country conduct its business with the king. The English sneered at how rough we are and rude and simple-minded and on like that, everywhere he went. 'Til one day he was invited to the townhouse of a great English lord. Dinner was served, beverages imbibed, time passed as happens and Mr. Allen found he needed the privy. He was grateful to be directed to this. Relieved, you might say. Mr. Allen discovered on entering the water closet that the only decoration therein was a portrait of George Washington. Ethan Allen done what he came to do and returned to the drawing room. His host and the others were disappointed when he didn't mention Washington's portrait and finally his lordship couldn't resist and asked Mr. Allen had he noticed it. The picture of Washington. He had. Well what did he think of its placement? Did it seem appropriately located to Mr. Allen? And Mr. Allen said it did. The host was astounded. "Appropriate? George Washington's likeness in a water closet?" "Yes," said Mr. Allen, "where it will do good service. The world knows nothing will make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington." I love that story."

1 comment:

  1. I've been telling that story about Lincoln and Ethan Allen's comments for years. It is a great illustration of the great man's willingness to be vulgar for a laugh or to make a point.