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by William H. Benson

January 31, 2013

     Two weeks ago I saw Steven Spielberg’s recent movie, Lincoln, and came away impressed. Sally Fields did an admirable job playing Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones played Thaddeus Stevens, but it was Daniel Day-Lewis, playing Abraham Lincoln, who was mesmerizing, riveting. It was if I was watching the real Abraham Lincoln, with all of his diffidence, hesitations, awkward mannerisms, ugliness, and squeaky voice fully displayed, with warts and beard and over-sized ears.

     Critics agree that Day-Lewis should win the “Best Actor” award. The movie critic in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg, was even more daring when he said that “Spielberg has made a very fine film—one that has no equal, no parallel that I know of in the entire movie canon.”

     I think that comment is accurate. Hollywood, I contend, ran out of script ideas decades ago, and is now a closed circle of repetitious romances, westerns, and adventure / spy movies, and few dare to break themselves loose from those molds. It is refreshing to see history—actual American history—acted out on the big screen for the world to witness.  

     Herzberg said, “One of the great Hollywood puzzles—scandals, even—is the paucity of first-rate films about the grand sweep of our country’s history. . . . There are no great movies, as far as I know, about, for example the American Revolution.” Then, the only movie in recent years that dramatized Colonial American history is Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper’s novel of the French and Indian War, and it too starred Daniel Day-Lewis.

     Spielberg begins his movie Lincoln in January, 1865, when Lincoln only has three and a half months to live. He is so utterly determined to get the House to pass the 13th Amendment that month that he barters behind the scenes, promising Congressmen jobs and money, in order to get their votes, and he wins. On January 31, the House passes the Amendment that abolished slavery for all time from the United States. Spielberg then quickly unfolds the final scenes of Lincoln’s life. 

     At the Hampton Roads Conference, held on February 3 in the saloon aboard the steamboat The River Queen, Lincoln and William Seward, the Secretary of State, meet the three Peace Commissioners from the South, and Lincoln bluntly tells them, “Slavery is dead.” He was correct. It was dead.

     Lincoln meets his real challenge at home when dealing with Mary Todd. He is out of his element in addressing his wife’s attitude and accusations. At one point in the movie, he shouts at her, “I wish for once you would take a more liberal view!” She cannot. The grief and self-blame she feels for the loss of their son, Willie, who died shortly after they moved into the White House, overwhelms her.

     On March 4, 1865, Lincoln gives his 2nd Inaugural Address. What is remarkable is the discrepancy between his words’ beauty and power and his unpolished manner when he delivers them. Today crowds would laugh such a character off a political podium, but Day-Lewis captured, as well as it can be, Lincoln’s thin, high-pitched voice and his jerky body movements. In that regard Lincoln was truly odd.

     Towards the end of the 701-word speech, Lincoln equated political necessities with religion. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. The Almighty his own purposes. Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. With malice toward none, with charity for all.” The words still stir us.

     On April 1, Grant’s troops crushed the Confederates at Petersburg, and Lincoln chose to visit Grant there, but to get to his General, the President had to ride his horse through the battlefield. Lying all around him were the dead, those soldiers killed just the day before, “one man with a bullet-hole through his forehead, and another with both arms shot away.” Lincoln visibly wilts at the carnage.

     As for Lincoln’s assassination, Spielberg fools his audience. We all know that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on Palm Sunday, but Spielberg shows us none of that. Instead, we see a crowded auditorium and a stage production of a magic show. We see Lincoln’s son Tad there, alone, and then someone rushes onto the stage and announces that the President has been shot. Tad screams, and we realize that the theater we were seeing was not Ford’s theater but another.

     Why did Spielberg play such a trick on his audience? Perhaps he understood that to do otherwise would have been too painful and too horrific for audiences to watch the horror play out. Instead, he permits us to watch Tad react to the grim news of his father’s passing. I suspect that this scene is historically inaccurate in that it is doubtful that Tad was allowed to attend a play without his parents.

     Lincoln’s final scene. There he lies on a bed, the blood from his head wound soaking into the pillow, and once the physician pronounces him dead, Edwin Stanton says, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Now that is historically accurate. Stanton actually did say that, and Lincoln does belong to the ages.

     Spielberg took a gamble, and he won with Lincoln.