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Film Review


More books have been published about Abraham Lincoln than any other person except Jesus; nearly 15,000 by some estimates. Against impossible odds he saved the Union and eliminated slavery, an issue the framers of the Constitution had bypassed because it was so divisive. He selected highly capable men for his cabinet, many of whom had been his political rivals. Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Team of Rivals", focuses on Lincoln's extraordinary ability to win men to his side and inspire loyalty. Much of "Lincoln" is drawn from her book. With the possible exception of George Washington, he was our most significant American leader. As revered as Lincoln is at home, he seems even more admired in other countries. Yet, for all of Lincoln's towering accomplishments, it was the time and manner of his death that immediately placed him into the pantheon of Great Men. He died on Good Friday, April 15, 1865, and was promptly compared with Christ. His was the first assassination of an American president. The entire country, including Southern States, was stunned and plunged into a more profound period of mourning than had been seen before or since. Draped in black, his funeral train bringing his body home to Springfield was watched and saluted by literally millions of grieving Americans. The train, never traveling at more than 20 mph, went first to Baltimore, then Philadelphia, then New York City, and back across northern NY state through Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Chicago, and finally Springfield. Secretary of War Stanton's famous statement, in the room, when Lincoln died, "Now he belongs to the Ages", was prescient.

"Lincoln" opens with a brutal scene of hand to hand combat in the mud, men killing other men with bayonets, knives, and pistols; many dying horribly or maimed. The Civil War was the most traumatic event in US history, a bloody elemental struggle, nearly inconceivable to us today. A single day at Antietam (September 17, 1862) saw four times the number of men dead or wounded than during the invasion of Normandy. By the most conservative estimate, 625,000 died of battle and disease; this in a country with a population then (1861) of 26 million. This was the equivalent of 5 million deaths in todays population. So Spielberg sets the back drop for a close look at Lincoln's last 6 months in office as the war continued to rage. On January 1st, 1863, after the Battle of Antietam (the bloodiest day of the Civil War), Lee retreated (many historians consider it a draw) but Lincoln used this modest victory to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. By presidential decree all slaves were freed, without compensation to their owners, in the states still in rebellion against the Union. But it did not ban slavery, and Lincoln was concerned that once the war was over, a court might overturn his proclamation. He wanted to end slavery forever, his goal above anything else, except preserving the Union. Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 over George McClellan, a "peace" Democrat and once his top general. With his re-election, Lincoln knew that this would be the best time to attempt to legislate slavery out of existence. He realized that a constitutional amendment was needed, and instructed his fellow Republicans to introduce the necessary legislation into both houses. A constitutional amendment requires the approval of 2/3rd's of each house. The Republicans controlled the Senate, so the bill was easily passed there, but the Democrats were still strong in the House, and he needed 20 of their votes. The Democrats, and even some of his fellow Republicans, were opposed to an immediate ban on slavery, fearing that this would quench Southern surrender sentiments. So Lincoln had to use all of his political skills, including outright bribery in the form of patronage jobs, to gather enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in all the states. The attempts to secure these votes occupy more than half the film, a riveting narrative, leavened with humor.

Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan", "War Horse", "Jurassic Park", "Schindler's List") looks closely at Lincoln's relationships with his family, at his interactions with the weak and the mighty, and at his great political instincts. His rhetorical brilliance, political skills, down-home manner, compassion, humor, and ability to clearly communicate complex ideas in plain language are well known and well documented. But we really do not know a great deal about the inner Lincoln. Lincoln was plagued with depression, illustrated by a famous and well documented dream sequence, and an often difficult relationship with his oldest son, Robert. In Spielberg's powerful film we come closer to that knowledge, but Lincoln remains largely an enigma. Yet despite the opening scenes, this is not a war film. More than anything, "Lincoln" is quintessentially an American political film, joining the ranks of great political films such as "All the Kings Men", "Milk", "All the Presidents Men" and others. The casting, packed with talent, seems pitch perfect: Daniel Day-Lewis is extraordinary as Lincoln, without either that deep voice or that long frontiersman stride we expect. David Strathairn, as Secretary of State William Seward, strongly resembles portraits of Seward. Tommy Lee Jones is also very strong in his portrayal of the fiery abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens. Many other actors bear an uncanny resemblance to their characters. And Mary Todd Lincoln, as played by Sally Field, is masterful. Mrs. Lincoln suffered from depression and severe migraines most of her adult life. Two of her four sons died, one (Willie) in the White House, and the third, Tad, who is constantly running through the White House and interrupting meetings, died shortly after the War. She was in a serious carriage accident while in the White House, and was sitting next to her husband when he was shot. After Willie's death, she refused to allow Robert to enlist, and this was the source of much conflict with Robert. All of this spills out of the film.

Cinematography is excellent throughout, with many scenes beautifully shown in darkened rooms and with interesting closeups of characters nearly hidden in a forest of beards and whiskers. The sets are unusually accurate with correct period furniture, lighting, wall papers, and costuming. The language too, seems right. Noted playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") wrote the screenplay and much of the dialogue that isn't drawn from historic accounts. Lincoln's towering rhetoric is here, sometimes spoken by soldiers quoting his incomparable Gettysburg Address back to the President, and sometimes from his own lips, as in his magnificent Second Inaugural Address, arguably the greatest speech ever made in America ("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,....."). Often we hear him tell his famous stories and occasional dirty jokes. Spielberg's command as director is outstanding, and often brief scenes tell entire stories. But "Lincoln" isn't perfect. He can't seem to resist having his characters sermonize and sometimes the familiarity with which ordinary soldiers and citizens speak to Lincoln doesn't seem probable. But these are minor faults. I loved "Lincoln", and its 150 minutes sped by all too quickly. This will definitely be a contender for Best Picture, and Day-Lewis and Field will surely be nominated for Best Actor awards. In every sense "Lincoln" is the best American film that I have seen this year, and what a marvelous irony that "Lincoln" opens as a black man has just been re-elected to the presidency. Just opened at the San Francisco Centre theaters (MIssion between 4th & 5th), but will open more widely in a week or two. Definitely one for the big screen!

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