Lincoln, a Review

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Well, on Saturday I went with my family to see Lincoln. Considering that the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner and the film directed by Steven Spielberg, I wasn’t expecting much. I wouldn’t have been totally surprised to see something along the lines of “Gay Illinois Lincoln and the Confederacy of Doom!’.  Instead I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It is a great film and perhaps a minor masterpiece. It is definitely one of the finest screen representations I have ever seen of Lincoln, and it is a worthy tribute to the Great Emancipator. Read below for the rest of my review, and the usual caveat regarding spoilers is in full force.

I saw the film in a theater in Kankakee, Illinois. The 12:40 PM showing we attended was completely packed which surprised me. Throughout the audience was thoroughly engaged in the film, laughing at the stories that Daniel Day-Lewis told as Lincoln and at other humorous points. Some of the Lincoln stories told would have made an ox roar with laughter. I especially enjoyed a somewhat scatological tale involving Ethan Allen. Go here to read about it. As Lincoln pointed out himself, some of his stories might have not been as nice as they could have been, but his stories were part of the man, and it was enjoyable seeing this part of Lincoln’s persona so ably brought out in the film. In an amusing sequence Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Stanton yells at Lincoln as he is telling a story while Stanton is waiting for news as to whether Fort Fisher had fallen, the fort which guarded Wilmington the last port of the Confederacy. This was quite accurate as Stanton, although he came to respect Lincoln, was always quite blunt spoken when dealing with the President and had little tolerance for Lincoln’s habit of telling time-wasting, in Stanton’s opinion, stories. The vignette with Stanton was only a small sample of how extremely accurate the film is. For example we see Grant followed by his aide, Colonel Ely Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Indian. The character of Parker has no speaking role, and I appreciated the attention to even minor details that his inclusion demonstrated. During the abortive peace negotiations at Hampton Roads, Lincoln refers to Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, as Alex. It is not brought out in the film, but Lincoln and Stephens had both served in Congress as Whigs and had become friends. It is this type of careful attention to historical veracity that makes or breaks a historical film for me.

Daniel Day-Lewis is simply magnificent in the role of Lincoln. He captures well both Lincoln’s role as a far-seeing visionary and a master of mundane nuts and bolts politics. From the trailers I had observed I was concerned that he would portray Lincoln as too emotional, but that is not the case. Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as he was: a very humane man waging the bloodiest war in our nation’s history and trying to lance the boil of slavery that had poisoned and embittered American life for a quarter of a millennium. He conveys well the human toll that all this imposed upon Lincoln.

The film takes place near the end of the War. Lincoln has been reelected and is now attempting to have Congress pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln is concerned that if the War ends before the Amendment is passed through Congress, the impetus behind it will fade away since it will no longer be regarded as an essential war measure. He is worried that his Emancipation Proclamation, taken as a war measure, might not hold up in peace time, once the former Confederate States are back in the Union, with laws still allowing slavery on their books. The film centers on his efforts to convince enough Democrat Congressmen, by fair means and by foul, to vote for the Amendment.

Tommy Lee Jones is good in the role of Thaddeus Stevens, the grim abolitionist Republican congressman of Pennsylvania, who during the War had butted heads with Lincoln many times and who after Lincoln’s death would destroy Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction replacing it with his Reconstruction plan which intended to punish the South. For now, they are allies to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.

A very amusing sequence is played out between Sally Field, giving a surprisingly good performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, at a reception. Mary Todd Lincoln utterly despised Stevens who had often criticized her expenditures on the White House and who had suggested, in none too subtle terms, that her loyalty to the Union was suspect due to her Southern roots and her kinfolk fighting for the Confederacy. This was a complete canard as Mary Todd Lincoln was whole-heartedly for the Union and was also anti-slavery. Seeing Mary Todd Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens exchanging elegant insults in a reception line at the White House in the film warmed my historian’s heart!

The film ends with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House, both tension packed and humorous. The film concludes, after Lincoln’s assassination, with a stirring rendition of the closing passage of the Second Inaugural:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This is a truly epic film and it should be seen by all Americans.

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  1. Good point, Beth. No doubt Biden feels strongly about his contribution and will soon make note of this embarrassing shortcoming. Only question is whether he can beat Al Gore to the punch.

  2. I fully agree. It’s a superb film. I lost track of time and was disappointed when it started to wrap up. May be the best acting I’ve ever seen at a movie. Daniel Day-Lewis = Abraham Lincoln. So many good authentic performances…

  3. I enjoyed the film just as much.

    One minor detail, when Lincoln is chastising Seward towards the end of the film in a dark room or when he is talking with Alex on the riverboat (can’t remember which one), he refers to the Constitution as holding “unforeseen rights that we can’t imagine today”. Or something along those lines.

    If they could have not take a partisan shot (and I think Lincoln didn’t say that, sure that Donald will correct me if he did), the film would be ‘complete’ for me as one worthy of adding to my movie collection.

  4. As memory serves Tito Lincoln was indicating in the film to Stephens that ending the right to slavery might open up rights unforeseen today. That was a truism as far as it went. We only have a fairly vague idea of what was said at the conference as no stenographic record was made and the participants differed in their accounts.

  5. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the finest actors around. I enjoyed the movie There Will Be Blood and especially in Gangs of New York.

    James Spader, it’s nice to seem him make a minor comeback in film, him, Johnny Depp, and Robert Downey Jr. have been my favorite actors since the 80s. It’s good to see them age very well in their acting careers.

  6. Very excited to see this film now — thank you Don for ‘the historian’s review’. I couldn’t think of any other actor other than Daniel Day-Lewis who who would be capable of this kind of challenge. Reportedly he spent a year, and read over 100 books on Lincoln, in preparation for the role.

  7. Very happy to see this review as I had many of the same reservations as Don. Looking forward to getting to watch the movie sometime after it comes out on DVD. (What, you think me and the Mrs. actually get to go to movies anymore?)

  8. I’m weighing in a little late here because DH, DD and I just went to see “Lincoln” this afternoon. In a nutshell: liked most (but not all) of the acting, but was kind of disappointed in the movie itself. For one thing, I thought the opening scene with Lincoln and the soldiers in the train station was WAY too contrived. There were also a few too many obvious efforts to generate extra drama and remind everyone that this is a Spielbergian Epic With A Capital E where I don’t think it was necessary (e.g., long, dramatic pauses during the 13th Amendment vote). And while the movie bills itself as based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” the events depicted in the movie make up just a small fraction of the book — probably because it would have taken an epic-length TV miniseries to do justice to the entire book!

    That said, I thought Daniel Day-Lewis made an excellent Lincoln and was especially good at portraying the fact that Lincoln was a skilled political player. I also like the way it showed the “horse trading” and compromising that is often a necessary (though sometimes distasteful) part of accomplishing lofty goals such as abolishing slavery. The scene in which Lincoln tells Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) that a compass can point the way to true north but doesn’t necessarily help you navigate through all the swamps and other obstacles you will run into on the way, is one I think we ought to remember when we debate issues like abortion, gay marriage, immigration, etc.

    Sally Field seemed a bit old to be playing Mary Todd Lincoln — Field is past 60 while Mrs. Lincoln was only in her 40s when she was First Lady. But she did a good job of going beyond the typical caricature of Mrs. Lincoln as a crazy harridan who made her husband’s life a living hell. She was at her best in the scenes where she expresses her entirely understandable terror of losing yet another son if Robert Lincoln were allowed to pursue his desire to enlist in the military.

    Finally, a supporting role of particular interest to us was that of Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair Sr. We recently saw Holbrook’s live “Mark Twain Tonight!” show in Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo., and were impressed at the way Holbrook, at 87, still keeps his Twain presentation sharp, witty and relevant. In “Lincoln” Holbrook plays an elder statesman who attempts to broker a peace agreement between North and South, even though it might imperil Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. His role is brief but worth watching.

    I think Day-Lewis, Field and possibly Jones deserve recognition at Oscar time but I would NOT be prepared to award the movie Best Picture overall.

  9. “Finally, a supporting role of particular interest to us was that of Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair Sr. We recently saw Holbrook’s live “Mark Twain Tonight!” show in Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo., and were impressed at the way Holbrook, at 87, still keeps his Twain presentation sharp, witty and relevant. In “Lincoln” Holbrook plays an elder statesman who attempts to broker a peace agreement between North and South, even though it might imperil Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. His role is brief but worth watching. ”

    Holbrook played Lincoln in 1974 miniseries Elaine that I highly recommend and which is out on DVD:

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