Sunday, November 18, 2012


I was in such a froth to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln that I couldn't wait until it came to my hometown, so yesterday FryDaddy and I met two of our faithful companions who were also anxious to see it at a theater out of town.  Imagine my delight to get into the theater (admittedly small; the larger theaters in the multiplex were taken over by Twilight which was playing every half hour) and find it crammed.*  We had a devilish time finding four seats together and wound up much closer to the screen than I usually like.  But as soon as the film began, I forgot all about those gripes.

Lincoln is a masterpiece.  I don't say that lightly - I think there are lots of good films and a fair amount of great ones, but "masterpiece" is a word to be used with great care.  Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals (and I'm sad to report that portions of her earlier work have been found to be the result of plagiarism.  Our heroes often have feet of clay, do they not?) and Tony Kushner of Angels in America was charged with creating the screenplay.  (Kushner and Spielberg have worked together before - Kushner was responsible for the screenplay for Munich.) 

From the opening scene, Lincoln grabs you by the throat.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a masterful actor and in Lincoln he is not only given wonderful, rich material to bring to life, he is surrounded by a supporting cast that could make gravel sparkle.  And Day-Lewis ain't gravel.  Sally Field as a political Mary Todd Lincoln capable of genteel manipulation of her husband's political enemies, Tommy Lee Jones as the radical Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as William Seward - all deliver bravura performances, but so do James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Jared Harris.  (Full cast list here - it's truly amazing.)  Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which forever after outlawed slavery in the United States, was not a slam-dunk piece of legislation.  Far from it.  And seeing the agony caused by (and, in some ways, still being caused by) That Damned War made this Southerner very, very glad to be watching this film.  Politics has always been a game  of backdoor deals played by the daring and the foolish - and sometimes, the line separating the two can be microscopically thin.

Spielberg captures this.  By 1865, hardly anyone was in favor of slavery, but hardly anyone knew what to do about it.  Four million people were to be freed from bondage by the stroke of a pen - then what would happen?  Abolitionists fought the moral battle - what came next didn't matter, it was the Right Thing to Do.  Most politicians looked cautiously further down the road and didn't like what they saw, so they wanted to delay the decision.  (As did the Founding Fathers - read Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution.  They kicked the slavery can down the road when they wrote:  "The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808 . . ."  They needed the support of the South, and the South depended on slavery for their economy.)

Look - I could go on and on about this film, but let me just say this.  Lincoln brilliantly lays out why passing the 13th Amendment was both crucial to preserving the Union and blastedly difficult.  And the film manages to make a roll call  vote positively riveting.  Go see it.  Then re-read the Gettysburg Address.  Then see it again.  At that point, you'll probably want to thrash those people who have recently called for their home state to secede following the election two weeks ago.  While I abhor violence, I could see your point.

And here's a weirdness not covered in the film, but definitely worth a "hmmm."  Edwin Booth, brother to Lincoln's assassin, saved the life of Robert Lincoln, who was the eldest son of the Lincolns.  Really - read about it here.

*Oh, and there was a line - a long one - of people waiting to get in to the next screening.  There's hope for this country yet.

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