I’ll admit, Lincoln had me worried at first. It started with a black soldier listing “As You Know Bob” facts about the Civil War as he talked to an anonymous visiting type, who turned out to be the president himself. The soldier went on to annoy me with obvious politicking. I’m an avowed liberal, and I voted for Obama both terms. But it irritated me to have this particular scene open the film. The soldier basically says, “Now that black soldiers receive equal pay to whites, maybe soon, people will tolerate a black colonel, a black lieutenant…” and then he leaves the viewer to fill in the gap with “black president.” Those who accused the film of campaigning on Barack Obama’s behalf are quite on target, I am sorry to say.
But after those opening moments, I was riveted. Much of the Congressional sniping that takes place in the film comes straight from transcripts. So the member of the House who calls the President “Africanus”? That probably really happened. Historically, the Copperhead faction of the Democratic party referred to him as Abraham Africanus I. Remember, Democrats were those who supported slavery; Lincoln was a Republican, and the movie doesn’t discuss the parties’ subsequent political reversals.
The acting was nothing short of sublime. I did not recognize Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, or even Tommy Lee Jones. Scott recognized Jones, we both spent the whole film thinking, “I know who that woman is,” but failing to place Field, and we were astounded to find out that Lincoln was Lewis. (Sidenote: Yes, we have been living under a rock. Movie casting is not of immediate use to either the teaching of History or English Comp I, so we missed out on it.)
Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln as a tragic heroine in the classic sense. She is a distraught mother who is nonetheless a strong woman. The story doesn’t flinch from her depression and possible bipolar disorder, but it also doesn’t lend itself to the image of a woman who should have been institutionalized. (Remember, son Robert eventually put his mother in an asylum, from which she escaped.) Instead, she appearsin a compassionate light, never vilified, though also far from perfect.
In fact, the honest portrayals of all the historical figures are to be commended. Even the characters who support slavery are are given fair treatment, and director Spielberg trusts viewers to make their own conclusions. If the movie has a bad guy, it’s Senator George Pendleton from Ohio, the primary anti-emancipation representative. When Congress votes to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, Pendleton walks out, dejected, all his political machinations having failed him.
But the movie doesn’t stint in depicting the bill’s supporters. The ‘good guys’ ’ dubious tactics are presented with no ambition to conceal their underhanded nature. In fact, when it looks like offering jobs to disaffected Democrats who lost reelection bids won’t secure the necessary number of votes to pass the bill, Lincoln resorts to going house to house making personal appeals to parties who might be swayed.
I’m giving no spoilers if I say we all know how this one ends. It’s a film whose tragedy is a foregone conclusion. Still, I won’t tell you how Spielberg portrays Lincoln’s death. It’s an angle that nobody I know of has taken before. Maybe it came out of the book the movie is based on, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals; I’ll let you know when I finish reading. But Spielberg, who has fully humanized the sixteenth president, breaks hearts in the way he presents the man’s assassination.
The movie is good. If it’s still in theaters in your area, go see it. (Only two people were in the showing we attended. Now’s the time to go.) You won’t be bored, as the drama is real, and the acting extraordinary. When Oscar nominations go up later this week, I’ll be shocked if Lewis and Field at least aren’t on that list. And the politicking? By the end it seems almost appropriate. It’s a movie that makes no bones about political agendas, so why not slip in a relevant political message to the modern viewer.