Paul W. Barada
I don’t think I’ve ever written a column that sounded very much like a movie review, so this week’s offering could be a first and, perhaps, the last. Most regular readers already know that I’m a Civil War buff. I would never presume to call myself a “student” of the Civil War, but over the years I have read quite a few books on the subject, subscribe to a couple of magazines about the Civil War, and consider visiting the battlefield at Gettysburg something close to a religious experience.
Every once in a while a movie about the Civil War comes along that is so outstanding that it deserves closer examination. Steven Spielberg’s new movie called simply “Lincoln,” deserves commentary. But before doing that, allow me to preface my comments by acknowledging that there are plenty of people who don’t enjoy history at all; hate it, as a matter of fact. I contend, however, that it’s difficult to understand the times in which we live without an understanding of the past. I also understand that there are folks who prefer movies like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to a movie about our 16th President and who have every right to their preference. Nevertheless, as I indicated, every once-in-a-while, a movie like “Lincoln” comes along that’s worth seeing, not only because it’s about a critical part of our history as a nation, but also because it’s so extremely well done. The only other movies I’ve seen lately that come close to “Lincoln” include “Saving Private Ryan” and “Gettysburg.”
The reason I’m going to advocate that everybody who has even the remotest interest in the American Civil War or, more basically, in Abraham Lincoln must see the movie is that I don’t believe any actor, ever, has come closer to capturing what Lincoln, the man and the President, was truly really like. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln in the movie; if he doesn’t win an Academy Award for best actor, I’ll be surprised. The film has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards altogether.
The movie is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book “Team of Rivals,” which focuses on the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. I know it sounds like pretty dull stuff, but the movie captures the political genius of Lincoln, along with his wit, wisdom, home-spun sagacity, and overall compassionate, empathetic personality so effectively it’s almost like watching a newsreel of the real man! How can that be, you ask? Well, the answer is that numerous people who actually knew Lincoln wrote about him, some in their diaries during his lifetime and some in books about his life after his assassination. The point is we have a wealth of first-person narratives about nearly every aspect of how Lincoln lived the last part of his life, even down to a description of how he walked, spoke, and carried himself throughout his years in the White House. We even know that he liked to lean back in his chair and prop his slippered feet on his desk as he composed letters or reviewed legislation.
So, for anyone who’s interested in knowing more about the man and not the myth, the movie “Lincoln” portrays him as he really was as closely as anyone living in this century can ever hope to know or experience about the real man. Part of Lincoln’s genius was his ability as a story-teller. He literally could recall hundreds of humorous anecdotes to fit nearly every occasion. His sort of backwoods demeanor, however, was as much an act as anything else. He was a highly intelligent and shrewd politician. At the peak of his legal career in Springfield, Ill., he was representing major railroads and other growing corporations in and around Chicago. So, he was no small-town country lawyer defending chicken thieves.
What’s also especially well done in the movie is the cast of supporting characters. Unless you’re a Civil War buff, this won’t mean too much, but I’ve got to mention it. When Lincoln meets with his cabinet, they’re immediately recognizable. I can remember telling Connie, “That’s William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State. And that’s Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War.” His actual second floor office in the White House looks just as it did, based on sketches of how it was laid out and its furnishings. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln and is every bit as believable as what’s been written about the real First Lady who, by the way, preferred to be called “Madam President.”
Most importantly, to Daniel Day-Lewis’ credit, is the power of the portrayal of the tremendous pressures are depicted that were placed on Lincoln which wore him down during his years in the White House. And that’s not acting; that’s fact. It’s almost impossible to imagine the stress of holding the loyal states together in the midst of civil war. It’s no wonder that in one scene Ulysses S. Grant says, “Mr. President you look like you’ve aged 10 years since we met less than a year ago.”
The other great role in the movie is the character of Thaddeus Stevens, Chairman of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Jones is every bit as acerbic, nasty, rude, and compelling as history says Stevens really was.
The point, I think, is that every now and then a movie comes along that captures something important about our past. So, regardless of whether you like history or not, this is one movie you absolutely should not miss. I guarantee you’ll be impressed.
That’s -30- for this week.