Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln (Rhoades)

“Lincoln” Reveals
Noble But Nasty
Historical Politics

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Let’s hope that after a hotly fought 2012 campaign for the Presidency of the United States, audiences aren’t burnt out on politics. For Steven Spielberg’s epic “Lincoln” is a fascinating mirror held up to today’s political infighting that’s required to pass measures in the House and Senate.
Although based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s insightful book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” Spielberg focuses only on a portion of her story, the last four months of Lincoln’s life, particularly January 1865 as he maneuvers to pass the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in the House of Representatives.
Three of Lincoln’s cabinet members had run against him in the 1860 election (Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Attorney General Edward Bates). These are the men Lincoln must mobilize in order to pass the historic legislation abolishing slavery.
In “Lincoln,” the 16th President's mostly successful efforts to reconcile these conflicting personalities and opposing political factions are played out against the backdrop of the Civil War.
“I think the movie is wanting to disabuse us of the sense that Lincoln is this high-minded idealist who wouldn’t stoop to using the machine to get votes,” says Lincoln biographer Ronald White. “And Secretary of State Seward – remember, he was Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republican nomination for president – is a shrewd politician. He’s in this with Lincoln; he’s not an unwilling co-conspirator. And he’s willing to do things sort of outside the box that Lincoln perhaps can’t do. Seward delivers the votes on the 13th Amendment in a variety of ways.”
Director Steven Spielberg says, “What permanently ended slavery was the very close vote in the House of Representatives over the 13th Amendment – that story I’m excited to tell.”
Despite all this rhetoric, Lincoln did not start the war to free the slaves, but rather to save the Union. However, he came to realize that he could no longer move forward without a true understanding of liberty and union. So he made the moral decision to embrace the cause.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln” is a slow but thoughtful two-and-a-half-hour historical drama. It’s currently showing at the Tropic Cinema.
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” reflects the more serious side of the filmmaker (think: “Amistad,” “The Color Purple,” “Munich,” “Schindler’s List” as opposed to “Jurassic Park,’ “E.T. the Extra-terrestrial,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).
This film manages to be at once “a historical piece, a commentary on modern politics, Oscar bait, and a fascinating study of people living in impossibly difficult times.”
Liam Neeson was originally slated to portray Lincoln, but when he dropped out, Daniel Day-Lewis stepped up to the podium. He makes perhaps the best Abraham Lincoln ever to appear on screen.
Tall, top-hatted, and with chin whiskers, Day-Lewis gives us a man from another age, a gnarled Lincoln with a hobbled gait and thin reedy voice. Maybe not the orator’s voice that we expect, but accurate according to historical accounts.
“He is very much deeply invested and immersed throughout the day when he's in character,” producer Kathleen Kennedy describes Day-Lewis’s Method Acting. “I mean, he’s given huge scenes with massive amounts of dialogue and he needs to stay in character … it’s a very, very performance-driven movie.”
Yes, there’s Oscar buzz.
Sally Field holds her own as Mary Todd Lincoln. Spielberg said, “She has always been my first choice to portray all the fragility and complexity that was Mary Todd Lincoln.”
David Strathairn gives us a Secretary of State Seward who is crafty, tough, a political ruffian.
How historically accurate is the movie?
Ronald White, author of “A. Lincoln: A Biography,” says, “The dramatic core of this remarkable four months of trying to pass the 13th Amendment is true. Is every word true? No. Did Lincoln say, ‘And to unborn generations ...’? No. But this is not a documentary. And so I think the delicate balance or blend between history and dramatic art comes off quite well.”
Keys Coalition Against Human Trafficking co-founder Timothy Gratz was disappointed that Frederick Douglass did not make an appearance in the movie.
“I think that’s a point well taken,” says Ronald White. “But what the audience doesn’t fully understand, in the final scene – almost the final scene –  where suddenly African-Americans arrive in the balcony as the final vote is to be taken, that one of those is Charles Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass. Charles had fought in the famous Massachusetts 54th; he will write to his father after that climactic vote: ‘Oh, Father, how wonderful it is. People were cheering, they were crying tears of joy.’ So that had the potential for more black agency, but it doesn’t come to full fruition in the film.”
As Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) summarizes the events, the most liberating constitutional amendment in history had been “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America” – that being Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, “Lincoln” is a stirring reminder that politics can be noble. At the same time it shows us that the nasty in-fighting of American party politics is not restricted to the modern era.

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