Though I saw many movies during the last three weeks, enjoying most of them, I think the best of them all was Lincoln. I suppose it’s not for everyone, and there won’t be a huge crossover in audience between it and The Hobbit. Nevertheless, as Jamie pointed out, Lincoln was (and is) a very popular president, so it’s with good reason that for weeks while I was in the US, it was still at #5 for box office receipts. It’s a very slow-moving film, and is not even necessarily a Civil War film. I’m sure it draws from many accounts of Lincoln’s last hundred days (in office and on Earth), though it does say that it was based at least partially on the book Team of Rivals, one which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time
Daniel Day-Lewis’ roles have always interested me, and especially the ones he takes in which he plays Americans. He is utterly convincing as Lincoln, and I noted no discrepancies as far as the accent is concerned (which some people registered). It’s an intellectual movie, but it’s also suffused with heart, such that I was crying when it reached its inevitable conclusion (basically where the also excellent film The Conspirator took off). I think, with sincerity, that it gives you a good, broad sweep of what Americans are like, and what America was about (at least in the 1860s). By this I mean that America is the freed Black soldiers who confront Lincoln at the beginning of the film; the eloquent soldiers whose very souls ring out with Lincoln’s famous “fourscore and seven years ago . . .” speech. It is Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, devoted to but exasperated by the President; it is the somewhat shady and rather earthy men Lincoln and Seward employ to bribe the lame-duck Democrats to vote for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. It is the rural constituent couple who just want an end to the Civil War and, while convenient, are willing to back the Thirteenth Amendment because President Lincoln endorses it. It is dignified Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens; it is Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and former slave. It is Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist; it is Fernando Wood, anti-abolitionist orator and former New York mayor.
The portrait of Lincoln in this film is of such wholesome goodness, the very essence of an iron fist in a velvet glove, that I felt no one like him would ever be born again; at the very least, we didn’t have such a politician like him living today. I know, of course, that the film can’t be taken as gospel truth, nor was Lincoln perfect (of course not). His homilies, quotations of poetry, and stories make him highly approachable. The film shows the multiple pressures on Lincoln, both private and professional, including his tumultuous relationship with permanently-grieving Mary Todd and his two living sons, Robert and Tad. It was beautifully filmed and, as some have mentioned, you did feel deeply within the nineteenth century. It seemed in no sense shiny or gilded, even inside the White House.
I think it makes a good companion piece to John Adams; both are modern takes on US Presidents, though John Adams is less well-known and in some ways more fallible. Lincoln doesn’t give us a full life story like the mini-series John Adams can; yet we can understand why Lincoln physically looks dramatically different even between the beginning and end of the film. Both filmic views actually make politics look interesting and as if they actually mean something (forgive my cynicism). Even though we know the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, the how and why is ultimately gripping stuff.