Monday, May 20, 2013

Lincoln (2012)

Abraham Lincoln: [to Ulysses S. Grant] Each of us has made it possible for the other to do terrible things.~from Lincoln (2012)
There is nothing quite like seeing a great actor and a great actress play opposite each other, such as Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn in The Lion and Winter, and now Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The tragedy which we call the Civil War was a tragedy for every family in America. Few families escaped suffering; the weight of sorrow fell heavily upon the family of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, a fact which the film powerfully demonstrates. Sally Field's Mary appears to embody in one small woman the full measure of loss, of brokenness, of insanity, of divided loyalties which rent America and caused lasting wounds. As the violence which was so much a part of the nature of slavery erupted and overwhelmed a continent, death became more a part of life than life itself for every citizen. The turmoil experienced by the Lincoln family was mirrored in thousands of ways throughout the two enemy nations.

The plot revolves around President Lincoln's struggle to drum up enough votes in congress to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which would theoretically bring an end to chattel slavery in America. The document previously published by Lincoln, known as the Emancipation Proclamation, did not free a single slave since it only applied to territory governed by the Confederacy. Lincoln was determined, by fair means or foul, to bring about the new amendment. The movie portrays the several shady characters who use bribery and threats to sway the congressmen into voting for the amendment. Thus the overwhelming message of the film is that the end justifies the means. In praising the workings of democracy, the leading characters were all in agreement that laws may be ignored as long as the cause is just. This raises many questions which still confront us today. In seeking to overthrow unjust laws, such as those which once permitted slavery and those which still permit abortion, to what extent are citizens bound to go? Let us remember that many Americans broke the law in order to rescue individuals from slavery, and for this we praise them. In the purely political sphere, however, graft and corruption win the day. Unfortunately, such methods are used to further unjust agendas as well as those which we deem just.

In a film which exudes authenticity there are several errors, according to The Daily Beast:
To be sure, there is no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie. First Lady Mary Lincoln, for example, never planted herself in the House Gallery to observe the final tally on the amendment. (Michelle Obama may routinely attend the State of the Union address each year, but such a visit would have been unthinkable in 1865.) Nor did congressmen vote by state delegations—a device that conflates the traditions of national political conventions with those of the House of Representatives....

Lincoln’s presidential office was never adorned with a lithographic portrait of William Henry Harrison, of all people, the old Whig president who died in 1841, just a month after delivering the windiest inaugural address on the windiest inaugural day in American history. Lincoln may have given short, unmemorable speeches at countless flag-raising ceremonies in Washington, but never was he ever seen, as he is in the movie, fetching his manuscript from the lining of his top hat, or for that matter using a crank, not a system of ropes, to pull the flag up a pole....
In yet another scene, Lincoln’s young son Tad plays with glass negatives on loan from photographer Alexander Gardner’s gallery. But Gardner would never have sent one-of-a-kind, fragile plates to the rambunctious little “sprite” of the White House. Not long before, Tad had shown his contempt for photography by locking a camera operator out of a White House closet where he was developing portraits of the president, angry that he had appropriated one of his private hiding places without permission. By the time Lincoln fetched the key, the images had been all but ruined. Tad liked photos all right—paper prints—and his souvenir picture of Fido, the pet dog the family left behind when they headed to Washington, was, shall we say, dog-eared.
As for the Spielberg movie’s opening scene, in which a couple of Union soldiers—one white, one black—recite the words of the Gettysburg Address to the appreciative Lincoln, who is visiting the front toward the end of the war—it is almost inconceivable that any uniformed soldier of the day (or civilians, for that matter) would have memorized a speech that, however ingrained in modern memory, did not achieve any semblance of a national reputation until the 20th century.
 Would Mrs. Lincoln really have had her dressmaker sit next to her in the presidential box at the opera? Mrs. Keckley was a gifted and fascinating woman and confidante of Mrs. Lincoln but in those days she would not have been regarded as a social equal by Washington high society. Of course, Mrs. Lincoln loved to flout convention so I suppose just about anything is possible. However, I doubt that she or the President would have allowed their young son to play with photographic plates showing beaten slaves. Not that Tad would have been totally ignorant of such things; the slave market near the White House was going strong until April 1862 when the "peculiar institution" was finally abolished in the District of Columbia.

At any rate, every performance was mesmerizing and the actors became utterly lost in their parts. I did not recognize Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens until he removed his wig. The glimpse into the complicated psyche of Mary Lincoln made me want to take a refresher course on a lady who is probably one of the most intriguing characters in American history. The war ends as the film ends but her tragedy goes on. Share


julygirl said...

Top notch review of a powerful, well-made, well writen film. You hit on all the questionable points of which I always wonder why film makers put unhistorical scenes in films when the reality of the events need no improvisation.

Gareth Russell said...

Fantastic review! And I agree completely about the acting. A professor of mine at Queen's, Catherine Clinton, wrote an absolutely wonderful biography of Mrs. Lincoln and she served as an adviser on the film - I've bought the book and can't wait to read it this summer.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, my friends! Gareth, I must read that biography by Catherine Clinton!

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, my friends! Gareth, I must read that biography by Catherine Clinton!