Lincoln is not perfect. But it ascribes majesty where it belongs and cites American democracy as a noble experiment.
The new movie Lincoln was appropriately timed for release in time for Thanksgiving, which President Lincoln declared a national holiday. And this week is the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. There’s much to thank God for in the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln, including his aggressive push for the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, on which the movie focuses. Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as Lincoln, possibly the best Lincoln portrayal ever, or at least since Raymond Massey.
Unlike Robert Redford’s somewhat ridiculous movie The Conspirator last year, which tried to exonerate Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt, Steven Spielberg’s recreation of Civil War era Washington is good. The movie actually filmed in Richmond and Petersburg. The very dome-less Virginia Capitol was electronically morphed into the U.S. Capitol. One scene ostensibly showing incendiary radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens inside the U.S. Capitol actually shows the famous 1788 statue of George Washington inside the Virginia Capitol. Otherwise, most of the Victorian interiors, especially in the White House, seem right. I’m not sure, but the purported U.S. House of Representatives chamber may actually be the restored old Illinois statehouse. I don’t think the current U.S. House chamber, built in the 1850s, ever had windows, and in the movie, sunshine flows in during key debates.
All the performances are competent. But members of Lincoln’s cabinet, except for Secretary of State William Seward, get short shrift, despite the movie’s sourcing from Doris Godwin’s cabinet-focused Team of Rivals. Although now too old, Gene Hackman at some point in his career should have portrayed the impatient, severe, and indispensable War Secretary Edwin Stanton, whose petulant appearance here is too short. Aged Hal Holbrook is suitable as political patriarch Francis Preston Blair, ensconced in his still today famous house across the street from the White House. Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd captures Mrs. Lincoln’s intelligent humanity and impending derangement.
Tommy Lee Jones purportedly steals the show as surly Thaddeus Stevens — though Daniel Day-Lewis needn’t worry. The final scene of the club footed and bewigged abolitionist from Pennsylvania sees Stevens in bed with his black housekeeper and mistress, to whom he proudly exhibits the just passed anti-slavery amendment. History is not certain of the bachelor’s intimacy with his mixed race, longtime maid to whom he bequeathed a small fortune. But the evidence for it is greater than for the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings myth. Here the affair commends his racial virtue. In the racist “Birth of a Nation” film a century ago, the character based on Stevens is villainized through his black mistress.
Although the movie is about liberating enslaved blacks, the only major black character is Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her own freedom as a renowned Washington seamstress, and who later becomes a companion to Mrs. Lincoln. Ironically, she previously worked for Mrs. Jefferson Davis when the future Confederate president was still a U.S. senator. Too bad the movie had no room for Frederick Douglass, who famously fought his way into a White House reception after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, whose delivery is the closing scene. Lincoln had beckoned him in through the crowd when blacks at such events were still unusual, so as to as solicit his view of the speech. “A sacred effort,” Douglass pronounced, eliciting Lincoln’s grateful smile.
Also sad is that Lincoln’s most triumphal moment is omitted, though it would have fit perfectly with Spielberg’s theme. Lincoln’s entrance into captured Richmond, where he was greeted by ecstatic crowds of then freed blacks in the streets, as wary whites quietly observed from their windows, culminated with his visiting the Confederate White House and sitting in Jeff Davis’s chair. To one former slave who knelt before him, Lincoln reputedly implored to kneel only before God.
Instead Lincoln is shown with General Ulysses Grant shortly before at Petersburg, deeply introspective over the carnage. For a brief moment General Robert Lee is shown silently leaving his surrender to Grant at Appomattox. The actor portraying Lee seems portlier than Lee is known to have been at the time, from the iconic Mathew Brady photo just days later at Lee’s Richmond house. (Lee wasn’t always slim and did enlarge during earlier, sedentary parts of the war.) Grant is portrayed adequately as taciturn, though he tells Lincoln how much he has aged, which seems a little unlike him.
Lincoln himself is shown as even tempered, except when arguing with his wife, or for dramatic effect with his cabinet. In one unlikely scene he slaps his adult son for whining over his father’s refusal to allow him into the army. But Lincoln was lax with his children, whom others saw as undisciplined, and he didn’t likely hit any of them at any age. He was distant with his eldest, who later recalled that his total time with his father during the presidency could be numbered in minutes.
With his son, Lincoln is seen approaching a church, which turns out to be a hospital. Too bad there is not even fleeting admittance of Lincoln’s growing spirituality during the war, amplified by the death of one young son. He spent a lot of time at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, to whose pastor he was close, as well as attending many other churches, sometimes with cabinet members.
This movie is not perfect. But it ascribes majesty where it belongs, to Lincoln and the battle against slavery. It contrasts with the cynical nihilism characterizing much of Hollywood, and cites American democracy as a noble experiment. Lincoln the movie, as Frederick Douglass said to its subject, is a sacred effort.
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