• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:December 22, 2021

Lincoln: Calamity in Congress

lincolnOn a visit to Washington D.C. last October, I made the obligatory visit to the Lincoln Memorial and found the experience of first taking in the huge marble statue of the 16th President and then reading the words from his second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address that are engraved onto the walls of the chamber quite overwhelming. Lincoln has become a saintly figure in American history, and if a few deserve that status he certainly is one of them. Steven Spielberg’s epic doesn’t offer a challenging vision of the President, but as an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant “Team of Rivals” it is sheer mastery.

A proclamation with no basis in law
In January, 1865, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just won reelection and the Civil War looks like it might finally draw to a close. At Gettysburg, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all slaves in Confederate territories free, but it has no basis in law. Lincoln needs Congress to formally abolish slavery and this will happen if the two legislatures pass a 13th amendment to the Constitution. After sailing through the Senate, the proposal lands in the House where it meets fierce resistance from Congressmen who fear the consequences of such an amendment.

The President and his supporters embark on a campaign to convince lame-duck Congressmen who have little to lose ā€“ as well as the conservative founder of the Republican Party. At the same time, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) has personal reasons to make sure that the amendment passesā€¦

Never losing credibility or gravitas
One of the greatest achievements of this film belongs to Tony Kushner. There were several stabs at adapting Goodwin’s massive book about Lincoln and his closest men, but Kushner came up with the final draft that convinced not only Spielberg but also Day-Lewis who had had his doubts. The book is a not easily approached masterpiece, but Kushner chose to focus on the meaning of the 13th Amendment, the reasons why Lincoln fought so hard for it at that time, and the dirty horse-trading that went on behind the scenes in order to secure votes.

Some critics of the film found it too talky and stagy, but the director uses every tool at his disposal to make the process as vivid and entertaining as possible, without losing credibility or gravitas; in supporting roles, James Spader steals every scene he’s in as one of the men hired to offer government jobs to get the necessary votes, and Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as Thaddeus Stevens, the Congressman who can trade insults on the House floor with the best of them. Day-Lewis delivers another bravura performance, virtually becoming the Lincoln Goodwin describes in her pages ā€“ gentle, firm, distant at times, sorrowful but with a knack for telling humorous stories whether you want to hear them or not.

Sally Field is also impressive as the First Lady who is almost overcome with grief from losing her son, but still finds enough strength to function. Spielberg has sometimes been accused of not caring about actors, but this is certainly an actors’ movie; watching this cast at work is fascinatingā€¦ and so is observing every detail of the production and costume designs, knowing the kind of effort that lies behind this drive to get as close to history as possible.

Democracy is messy. As I write this, Obama has just begun his second term and Congress will likely clash once again over the debt ceiling. Lincoln shows politicians threatening each other and twisting arms. The process itself ain’t pretty; it wasn’t in 1865 and it isn’t in 2013. But if something truly decent comes out of it, who can remember all the commotion?

LincolnĀ 2012-U.S. 150 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced byĀ Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy. Directed byĀ Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Tony Kushner. Book: Doris Kearns Goodwin (“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”). Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Music: John Williams. Production Design: Rick Carter, Jim Erickson. Costume Design: Joanna Johnston. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrookā€¦ Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Dane DeHaan.

Trivia: Liam Neeson was considered for the part of Lincoln, at an early stage. Holbrook has himself played the President in several miniseries made for TV.

Oscars:Ā Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Production Design. Golden Globe: Best Actor (Day-Lewis).Ā BAFTA:Ā Best Actor (Day-Lewis).

Last word: “What really, really did the trick was when [Day-Lewis] read the Tony Kushner script and I was able to get a take two. My good buddy Leo DiCaprio simply called him up one day and said ‘you need to reconsider this. Steven really wants you for this and heā€™s not willing to make the movie without you’. Based on Leoā€™s phone call to him, Daniel offered to read the Tony Kushner script, which he had never read, and also the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, which he had never read. Thatā€™s when the courtship part was over. Once he read the script, then he really had to come to terms with that big decision he would eventually have to make. Can I, with honor, equip this character in a way that Iā€™ll be able to live with this the rest of my life?” (Spielberg, Deadline)



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