Special to The History Place
Daniel Day-Lewis is Lincoln. In a long life I have seen only a handful of actors who, in a handful of films, so completely encompass their characters that I forget it’s only acting. Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump comes to mind. The recent Time Magazine cover story on Spielberg’s new film claims that after the acclaimed director tapped the acclaimed actor for the title role, Day-Lewis insisted on a year’s hiatus to study the acclaimed president he would play.
Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be frequently photographed. Although his voice and gait were never recorded, they were described by many contemporaries. Day-Lewis mimics them as perfectly as we–at the distance of a century and a half–can imagine them: the high, reedy voice that belies the great man’s stature, the halting gait resulting from the habit of putting big feet down flat instead of rolling on the balls. Day-Lewis also captures what Lincoln himself called his strangeness–his homely humor– and his smoldering passion.
Sally Field, as Mary Todd Lincoln, gives Day-Lewis a run for his money in the scenes they play together. When the story opens in early 1865, Lincoln has only recently won re-election. He has grown popular with the people, as the war has turned the North’s way. These triumphs are marred by the loss, three years earlier, of a son. Mary’s grief, as we all know, bordered on madness. When the older of the Lincolns’ surviving sons, Robert, drops out of Harvard and insists on joining up, Mary’s terror at the possible loss of a second son is the catalyst for the clashes with her husband that create a dramatic back story in the 2.5-hour film.
The third stellar performance in the film is delivered by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania politician who led the Republican Party in the House of Representatives. Stevens is remembered by history as a witty and sarcastic speaker and a flamboyant leader. Jones reproduces these qualities to perfection. Most memorably, when pushed by a Democratic opponent at a crucial point in the film to state whether he believes that all men are equal in all respects, Jones/Stevens retorts that he does not. To the contrary, he tells his adversary, you, sir, are a reptile.
The film’s dramatic action is driven primarily by Lincoln’s determination in 1865 to gain passage of the 13th Amendment before the war ends. He intends to readmit the rebellious states into the Union and he fears that they will block ratification. The Senate has previously passed the amendment, outlawing slavery. Sixty-five Democratic representatives have been defeated in the '64 election. And so, “the purest of men,” as one political operative labels him, stoops to buying these lame duck legislators with patronage appointments in his second administration.
Though a great idealist, who loved the Union and hated slavery, Lincoln was a consummate pragmatist. He famously suspended the writ of habeas corpus in order to incarcerate members of the disloyal opposition. He vaulted Ulysses Grant over his seniors, because Grant was a killer. “We have enabled each other to do terrible things,” he tells his capo di tutti capi shortly before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. He’s not above buying a dozen votes to ensure the end of slavery. Nor is he above sequestering a Confederate peace delegation and denying their presence in the capital, as the crucial balloting takes place.
The amendment passes the House, Lee surrenders, and Lincoln is shot dead. Many consider the assassination tragic, not only because Booth murdered one of America’s two or three greatest presidents, but also because Lincoln indicated he intended a benign Reconstruction. Just as we can never know whether Jack Kennedy fifty years ago would have ended the Cold War, we can never know what sort of Reconstruction president Lincoln would have been.
What we can say is that in sharp contrast to Kennedy’s foreshortened presidency, Lincoln’s greatest tasks were completed. He completed the great task undertaken by the nation’s founders by saving the Union from disintegration and eradicating the blight of slavery, which for 75 years had mocked the lofty aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln was– in the words of a near-great successor, Teddy Roosevelt, “the man who is actually in the arena…, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood…, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.”
For Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest living filmmaker, Lincoln is a third exploration of America’s struggle with the “race issue.” The Color Purple (1985) and Amistad (1997) are the previous two. Both are fine films. Lincoln is a masterpiece. Its prospects for an Oscar sweep are high. If this prediction proves correct, the director’s attention to every detail will be a major contributing factor.
I said at the start of this review that Day-Lewis is Lincoln. The film is 1865. As rarely as I have witnessed an actor become one with his character, just so rarely have I been drawn into a period piece so deeply that reemerging into the present comes as a bit of a shock. Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) was such a film. Lincoln lovingly reproduces Civil War Washington: the shadowy realms of candle and gas lighting; the soiled shirts of busy men; the gore of amputations at the army hospital; the mud of a capital city still short on elegance. The dialog variously amuses, inspires and arouses, without ever seeming stilted, as is so much of the dialog when screenwriters try to put words in the mouths of legendary figures. Utter authenticity is what I believe I saw and heard.
The film appears at an interesting juncture in our history. We are marking the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, a possible motive for Spielberg’s doing it now. The film is, in the last analysis, a meditation on human equality–in the eyes of blind Justice and in the hearts of us all. Opponents of the 13th Amendment expressed fear that African-Americans would win the vote–that they might even serve in Congress. Lincoln and Stevens wanted nothing less. Barack Obama’s election to a second term of residency in the house Mary Todd Lincoln refurbished infuses this meditation with a sense of fulfillment. I for one would have viewed the film very differently had Obama lost.
Leaving the theater and emerging back into the 21st Century, I wondered what is the “worthy cause” in which we should spend ourselves.
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
Jim Castagnera is the Managing Director of K&C Human Resource Enterprises He is the author of nearly 20 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College; Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires ;
and the upcoming Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom