Posted on 1/30/13 08:44 PM
This Isn't Usual, Sir--This Is History
The danger, of course, in my watching this film is that I know the history very well. I have a complete Time-Life series about the Civil War in the trunk of my car right now, because a friend knew I would want it, and it was ten dollars. I know it so well, in fact, that I was scanning the audience in the scene set at the Second Inaugural Address instead of looking at Daniel Day-Lewis. Because I wanted to see if Steven Spielberg would give us someone who was obviously John Wilkes Booth, who was there. (Save yourself the time; there are a couple of possibilities, but no certainty.) Several of the characters--pretty much all of whom are either historical figures or composites--went longer without being identified than I suspect most of the audience was happy about, but I picked out several of them on sight anyway. I knew David Strathairn was William Seward, and knew why he wasn't at Lincoln's bedside at the end. And I knew what was wrong about Lincoln's bedside at the end!
I did not actually know, going in, what part of Lincoln's life the movie would be about. As it happens, we start in January of 1865 and pretty much end then as well. (Perhaps ten minutes of wrap-up are also included set in April.) Lincoln has been reelected to a second term as President. The war is dragging on, though is mostly on hold for the winter, and while the end seems near, there is no certainty of it. He is trying to convince his Secretary of State, Seward, that now is the time to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives. He does not believe it will pass after victory, and it must pass. However, he doesn't have the full support of Congress on the issue. He doesn't even have the full support of his own party, and he knows there is going to be plenty of dealing necessary. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), is still mourning their son, Willie (Chase Edmunds). Their oldest son, Robert Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wants to drop out of Harvard and join the Army. And so forth.
Really, I could drop a lot of names, here. Tommy Lee Jones is up for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens (with S. Epatha Merkerson in a very brief role as his housekeeper), but I've seen arguments that the nomination should instead have gone to Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt, or perhaps James Spader as the delightfully sleazy W. N. Bilbo. Mary's confidante is another NBC veteran, Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley. Half of Congress looks at least vaguely familiar under the facial hair; one of the deciding votes is cast by Michael Stuhlbarg, and one of the leaders of the opposition was played by Lee Pace, who was Ned on Pushing Daisies. Hal Holbrook looks on from the gallery. Jackie Earle Haley is vice president of the Confederacy. Bruce McGill, a beloved Hey-It's-That-Guy, pronounces Lincoln's epitaph. Heck, even Lukas Haas gets a brief cameo as one of a pair of what I couldn't help describing as a pair of Union fanboys who recite the Gettysburg Address at Lincoln.
Apparently, Spielberg changed the names of some of the people recorded as casting "no" votes, because he didn't want complaints from the families. As if it isn't all in the public record anyway. However, one of the things I thought he best conveyed, and this tends to be true of Spielberg Historical Epics, is that history is simply complicated. Republicans lately have made a lot of hay over the fact that they passed the Thirteenth Amendment over the objections of most of the Democrats, but all other considerations aside, they very nearly didn't. Not just that the two-thirds vote necessary was such a squeaker, but that the Republican voting contingent wasn't a sure thing. In order to get the conservative branch of the party to vote with him, Lincoln had to send a peace delegation to Richmond. Which he had to keep secret, because if they thought he was close to ending the war, they likely wouldn't pass it. He had to get the radical branch of the party to tone down their rhetoric, because demands of full equality would only make it harder to abolish slavery. Then as now, there was a lot of horsetrading involved.
I don't agree with every stylistic choice Spielberg made, though I'm glad Sally Field fought to be considered for her role. Certainly I don't think the final ten or fifteen minutes add much to the story, other than enormous sympathy for Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath). However, I don't think he had much of a choice about how to end it. I think Americans know just enough of their own history to want to watch Lincoln's story to its inevitable conclusion. The movie begins with title cards explaining when it is set and where in the sequence of events we are, but almost all Americans know that "the end of the war" must inevitably be followed by "the death of Lincoln," and that if you're going to say the war is almost over, we want to see it. I will say, however, that I am extremely glad he (and, of course, screenwriter Tony Kushner!) allowed Lincoln his brief happy moment with Mary, especially after we'd seen so much of their pain. And I am glad that the theatre we see that night was not Ford's.