Friday, January 4, 2013


With malice towards none. This quote, I believe, does more to define President Abraham Lincoln than any other. Delicately balancing the enormous difficulties of his time in office, knowing when to give in and when not to compromise, Abraham Lincoln was a gentle man. Years ago, I read David Herbert Donald's biography of him which recounted one of his aides complaining that he wouldn't be surprised if Lincoln allowed his young son to use Lincoln's boot (or maybe it was his hat) as a toilet, and Lincoln would probably find it humorous.

Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln this way: a kind intellectual who would rather not fight but will if he has to. He loses his temper as most presidents do. (According to Jonathan Alter's "The Promise," aides who worked for both President Clinton and President Obama, Clinton's tendency was to explode with range and humiliate someone, then apologize with a big hug. Obama's way is much more powerful: a cold stare, terrible silence, and no apology.)  Lincoln does not want to fight, but he will if he has to. A fan like everyone else of Daniel Day-Lewis, I was concerned that after watching him in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," Day-Lewis would overdo it. As Abraham Lincoln he does not. He understands that most of the time he has to be subdued, with malice towards none. He doesn't need to be passionate, because that quality comes from Lincoln's wife, played by Sally Field, and the leader of the Radical Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who always pushed Lincoln to move faster. At times, Mrs. Lincoln and Representative Stevens quarrel in public, as seen in one of the best scenes where Mrs. Lincoln gives Stevens a calm, cheeky diatribe, and Stevens, in the presence of the president, must stand there and accept it.

With the focus of a benign president in malevolent times (he is pointedly asked by an opponent how many hundreds of thousands of have men died during his time in office), we are spared some of the more mythological elements of the Lincoln story, and that is how it should be. Henry Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln," which is still the best of the Lincoln film versions, shows us Lincoln as a lawyer; here that would be entirely unnecessary. (Sean Wilentz has an interesting article in the New Republic about this Lincoln movie and the Lincoln myth first set by D.W. Griffith's controversial "The Birth of a Nation.") Instead, we see Lincoln as a masterful politician, creating slightly unethical ways of securing passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. We get glimpses of Lincoln as a scholar, Lincoln as a husband, Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief, and Lincoln as a borderline-dictator. As the joke goes, Lincoln and other presidents may have suspended habeus corpus, but at least Lincoln told us.

Still, I couldn't help but feel a bit underwhelmed by Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." One doesn't have to go back decades to find better movies from the master, just look at the movies he made last year. He combined new technology with old, "Indiana Jones"-esque material in "The Adventures of Tintin" and made his tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood with "War Horse." "Lincoln" is a movie about one of our greatest presidents; "War Horse" is about a British boy's horse in World War I. I should have been much more engaged with "Lincoln" but in retrospect found "War Horse," as imperfect as it was, much more enjoyable.    

But undeniable praise should be given to Day-Lewis, considered by many to be the front-runner for this year's Best Actor winner. Unfortunately, even though he is in the vast majority of this film, it's too little, and we spend too much time with characters either less interesting and/or played by less talented actors. Some of the interesting performances are from Hal Holbrook (who once played Lincoln) as a conservative Republican more interested in ending the war than ending slavery, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and a trio of John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader as the three dispatched by Lincoln to come up with more votes to pass the Amendment.  But this is Day-Lewis' movie, as it should be, and for his performance alone, it is recommendable.

Movies, movies, theater, cinema, watch, watching, watches, view,  see, saw, cinema,  film, flick, motion picture, Lincoln, Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Obama, Clinton, Sally Field, Indiana Jones, David Strathairn


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