Abraham Lincoln looms large over the whole country, and always will. There is a certain ambivalence about the man still in the South, where he came to represent the tragedy of the war in which so many were lost and the terrible years after in which, without his leadership, the country was left to mend itself through chaos and dissent, a certain amount of which still blankets the hearts and minds of its people. Writers of the nation’s history tell us he was a great man, truly a hero, but he looks strange and almost surreal. Photographs reveal a serious man, rawboned and perhaps brokenhearted by the tasks put before him in his lifetime. We read his stories and his quips, we know of his personal burdens and challenges, and we know of the conflicts he faced, internal and external.
Earlier plays, books and films have portrayed him as stentorian and wise, perhaps also depressive and inaccessible, always larger than life, and bearing up under unimaginable pressure. Stephen Spielberg dispels some of that awe in Lincoln, his masterly new film which, it is assumed, will sweep the Academy Awards for the year 2012. Written by Tony Kushner, one of the country’s great playwrights, and based on several newer histories including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, the screenplay covers the period in which Lincoln’s primary goal and focus is to pass an amendment to the Constitution which will outlaw slavery in the country for good, once the war is over. It’s a brilliant stroke, forcing us to consider what might have happened if this project had been in the hands of someone less forceful and sure.
His casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was inspired. Seeing this performance one realizes if there were no more reason than to allow Day-Lewis the opportunity to play this role it would be enough to mount a major motion picture. Day-Lewis studied all he could about Lincoln, and the most impressive choice he made was to use a very human, non-godlike voice in speaking Lincoln’s words. One sees the pictures, reads the prose, and just naturally assumes Abraham Lincoln’s voice to be deep and booming, but those who heard him wrote otherwise. Important actors of previous generations, like Raymond Massey, played Lincoln’s words in rich, Shakespearean tones, but Day-Lewis’ Lincoln almost seems to wish he had such a voice. He has so very much to say, but he seems so human in struggling to say it in folksy, all-American terms, telling a joke or an offhand comment, as a bit of comedy relief for the great sorrows of his life and times.
Sally Field adds a very real, almost modern aspect to the character of Mary Todd Lincoln. Surely this woman is one of the most complex in American history. Male writers never quite seemed to know what to do with her, as the men of her time didn’t. She is usually seen as shrewish and perhaps psychotic, a shopaholic before the term or condition was known, and surely a drag on Abraham himself, who had enough to worry about without her drama-queen persona at his side. Field, however, does not seem all that neurotic; she tells us she has endured the unendurable loss of a child, and that she adores her husband far more than he does her—which may have been true, and probably was the way she looked at her life.
The main achievement of Lincoln, in my mind, is its portrayal of the raffish, rough world of American politics of the day. The sessions of the House of Representatives looked more like the English House of Parliament today—slanging matches of insults and impolite back-and-forth by men who might well be friends in other venues. We meet a crew of motley near-ruffians known as “operatives” or even lobbyists in the 21st century, who add a note of comedy to the proceedings of serious democracy. They know whom to pay and how to do it, even if their lives are threatened and an occasional gun may be waved in the face. James Spader, once a pretty-boy actor in sexy roles, has graduated to the status of a character actor, and his work here is outstanding in creating a genuine American original.
No doubt in many minds Tommy Lee Jones walks away with the picture. Thaddeus Stevens was a name I recognized, but Jones makes him real and endows him with a personality and character I will never forget. Jones’ mud-fence-homely face looks even worse now in close-up, and his Stevens is hardly likable although the audience is induced to wish him to prevail. We enjoy his heated scenes on the floor of the House. His last scene is a filmic treasure. I will carp, however, at the choice of such a contemporary, Dynel-looking toupee for him. I know it’s in the script that he is wearing a wig, but no self-respecting man (and I’m sure Stevens was that) would have put on one that looked like that in those days. Also, at the moment he takes it off he looks as if he has Alopecia or has shaved his head, not like a balding man. It makes him comic, which neither Tommy Lee Jones nor Thaddeus Stevens, would want to be in this context.
There are probably some missteps in the historical accuracy of the movie. I never heard that William Seward was such a supportive lieutenant in Lincoln’s goals, nor that he was so effective; however, that may simply be a gap in my historical knowledge. But over all, the movie Lincoln presents such an accurate picture of the man and his times that it is transformative. I’ve seen it twice so far and probably will see it again.