It’s just as good as everyone was saying it was … and maybe just a wee bit less. That’s not much of a put-down. I was fascinated and moved, and from time to time wished I was just a little less solemn.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is one of the all-time best portrayals of an historical figure I have ever seen, right up there with George C. Scott as Patton. In spite of some of the filming, in which almost every shot he is in could be considered for a postage stamp or a patriotic painting, he brings Lincoln to life like no one ever has before him, and like no one is ever likely to do again. There is the legendary folksiness, modesty, sometimes even playfulness, that he uses so brilliantly, lulling his listeners, hypnotizing them, until suddenly he cuts the legs right out from under them and exposes his truly brilliant mind. Within the first twenty minutes there is a scene with his recalcitrant cabinet officers who are all advising him that he needs to abandon this 13th Amendment business for now, as it will come a lot easier this December, well into his second term. And here he comes, laying out with relentless logic, cold political calculation, and yet always with a deep and heartfelt compassion, why it has to be now. This is a superb scene for Day-Lewis, and only the first of a dozen to come.
Abraham Lincoln was a man of the people like no one else ever has been. I can see this man, if he hadn’t gotten into politics and become president and then assassinated, in his eighties, sitting on the front porch of a general store somewhere in Illinois, right by the cracker barrel, whittlin’ and tellin’ his stories. I think he was the greatest man this country has produced.
Which is not to say he was without flaws. Nobody is. He was able, as shown here, to indulge in some heavy-handed politics, to horse trade for political office if he needed a vote. We see Secretary Seward enlisting three Washington sharpies, including William Bilbo, to find the twenty more votes needed for passage of the amendment in the House. Their tactics were questionable, to say the least. And yet (and I am no authority on the amendment, nor on Lincoln) no monetary bribes were offered. I get the feeling that Lincoln would do what he had to do, but would not cross a certain line. That means a lot in these days when most politicians don’t seem to really remember that there is a line.
As for the content … I will leave it to others to dissect what is correct in the story, what was altered for dramatic purposes, and what was made up. I’m sure there’s stuff like that. There always is. My feeling is that it was all reasonably accurate, certainly as to the thrust of the story, and most historians who have weighed in on errors strike me as more quibbles than real objections.
One artistic objection that has been raised that I think has some validity is the absence of major black characters. I understand that, originally, this was going to be a story that focused on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. (And Liam Neeson was going to be Lincoln. Well, when you’re casting Lincoln your choices are limited. Shrimps like Tom Cruise are out. And Neeson is even taller than Day-Lewis.) I don’t know how involved black leaders were in the passage fight, but it seems sort of weird that the only speaking parts for black people are Lincoln’s valet William Slade, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, and Thaddeus Stevens’ common-law “quadroon” wife, Lydia Smith.
One of the pleasures, aside from Day-Lewis, is the scenes in the House of Representatives. As portrayed here (and I have no reason to doubt it), it was a much livelier body in 1865 than it is today. Instead of the courtly and totally false politeness there and in the Senate, with its “Distinguished Gentleman” and “Honorable Senator” blandness, these guys weren’t afraid to get down on the floor and mud rassle. Were they really as good at extemporaneous speaking as we see here? I suspect they were. Oratory was an art back then, with no sound recording or, worse, television to even out every word from a politician’s mouth. Not only speaking, they could concoct an insult calculated to peel the skin right off your body, and never use a nasty word. Ah, the lost art of the insult. My feeling is that the last genius practitioner of it was Winston Churchill, and of course his skills were honed in the rough and tumble school of the British Parliament.
The acting is universally good, particularly Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. He even looks like him, which is not strictly necessary, but never hurts. Sally Field is good in a thankless role. Mary Lincoln struck me as an hysteric, and a narcissist. She would not hear of her son Robert joining the Army because she had lost two sons already. Well, things are tough all over, lady. So just because it would give you another nervous breakdown, you are willing to destroy the young fellow’s manhood, not to mention set a terrible example for all the other mothers who have lost sons? Sorry, I just don’t like Mary Todd.
In fact, as I said, the only thing I didn’t like was the almost unrelenting air of solemnity, like being in church. It sometimes threatens to degenerate into a history lesson, with each character delivering a concise speech that sometimes doesn’t have any real juice in it. But I only disliked that a little bit. All in all, this is a film that will be remembered when a lot of other ones on the Oscar ballot (like Argo) will be forgotten.