Before I say anything else, I must say that this is a must-see movie. Rush, do not walk, to your local theater and stand in line if necessary. By all means bring your children--any that are old enough to know Abraham Lincoln’s name. This is a movie that shows both the agony and ecstasy of being president in a way that only a great film can. It is not academic, but rather compellingly human, informative, even-handed and entertaining. It is violent but only enough to show the terrible toll the Civil War.
Daniel Day-Lewis, in the named role, makes you believe you have been with Lincoln as he spoke or pondered, as he laughed and cried, when he achieved a victory (the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, forever outlawing slavery in the United States) and suffered, with his wife (Sally Field), over the loss of a much beloved small son and feared that his eldest would join the army and be killed.
My wife thought that Sally Field had overplayed--"too hysterical," she said--but I insisted that Mrs. Lincoln was largely unbalanced by the loss of the typhoid death of her young and somehow blamed Lincoln’s dedication to his public problems. I found her portrayal very moving in a role that history has treated very unsympathetically. She has certainly come thousands of miles from "The Flying Nun."
The rest of the cast were almost all equally brilliant and contained the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook and James Spader. There were several black actors who played smaller parts but nonetheless stood out. Gloria Reuben, as Mrs. Lincoln’s black dressmaker and confidante who had purchased her own freedom was beautifully done, as was an entirely unexpected bit at the end, by S. Epatha Merkerson, and the black Union soldiers who initially give Lincoln a hard time and then, in an extremely touching moment, repeat sections from the Gettysburg Address spontaneously. (I’d give their names but am unable to learn who was who from the cast list.)
The central idea of the movie is the difficulty Americans, including many Northerners, had in recognizing black freedom. It does so by dealing with Lincoln’s life from two months before his assassination. At the beginning of the film there was still much doubt in the North that the war could be won. Screenwriter Tony Kushner, the author of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize drama Angels in America, somehow managed to cram into this brief time the politics, the humor, the downright bribery, which Lincoln brought to bear on the House of Representatives that seemed unlikely to pass the resolution submitting the 13th Amendment to the states.
Steven Spielberg directed and produced Lincoln. It strikes me that this is probably Spielberg’s best work. He has cast, shot and edited the film so as to make what might have been a very complicated plot seem simple, and dealt with a story which cannot have any surprise endings in such a way as to make the ending actually seem a surprise.
Two points puzzled me. In one, there is a silent scene at Appomattox Courthouse in which Lee comes out and sits on his horse which is being held by a somber Confederate soldier. Just as he settles, Grant and his staff come on to the porch of the house. With great respect, Grant raises his hat to Lee (as do his Union colleagues). Lee thinks a moment, and then returns the gestures. Slowly, he turns his horse and rides off, as it were, into history.
The trouble is that the scene is out of context and seems, on some level, to be a salute to W.D. Griffith, the brilliant but quite prejudiced filmmaker. Such scenes are typical of Griffith’s great silent epic, The Birth of the Nation. This seemed to me a tribute from one director (Spielberg) to another whose point of view was almost directly opposite to that of Lincoln.
In the second, although the music supplied by John Williams was apt in most scenes, it all seemed stolen from Aaron Copland without credit. Here was a challenge to create a moving and original score. Instead, Williams has supplied faux Copland. If he weren’t dead, Copland would be suing.
Be not be diverted by these small carps. Lincoln is one of the greatest American pictures ever produced. It honors not only Lincoln and those who fought and died in our great Civil War, but it also honors the artists who participated. Anyone who calls him or herself a patriot should see this film. It is a great American triumph.