I finally saw LINCOLN tonight. My head is buzzing with so many thoughts that most of them go unfinished, like a person who’s so surprised by something that he or she merely stammers half-started sentences. I’m hoping that writing a little about it here will help me process what I’ve seen, or at least enough of it to let me sleep. It IS nearly midnight after all.
When the nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards were released, it was clear that in spite of the long list the award race came down to three contenders: ARGO, ZERO DARK THIRTY, and LINCOLN. To my mind, they represented three different kinds of voting the Academy could do. ZERO DARK THIRTY is the daring choice, and the Academy is infamous for being a few years behind the curve (I feel like I might be mixing metaphors, but I’m not sure – if so, I apologize). It’s in the same family as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, I think. Both confident, in-your-face portrayals of the here and now. ARGO, on the other hand, was a middle ground. New enough and with a sufficiently ambiguous message that it would be seen as forward-thinking, as indeed it was. I have no wish to denigrate ARGO, which was a brilliant piece of cinema that entirely deserved the awards it received.
I had LINCOLN written off as a nod to the conservative streak in the Academy’s history. It was a safe choice, glorifying one of America’s most deified presidents, a political martyr who was assassinated on Good Friday. As author Sarah Vowell puts it, that Sunday pastors screamed comparisons between the martyred president and the martyred Jesus. Lincoln died that the country might live. Furthermore, LINCOLN is a Spielberg production. I think it would be hard to find anyone who would argue that Steven Spielberg does not hold an extremely high status in the film world. I thought the film would be good, as Spielberg’s movies almost always are, but that it wouldn’t be anything like its two primary rivals.
Having now watched the film, I must entirely recant my previous position.
LINCOLN is one of the best movies I’ve watched in a long time. Today, nearly 150 years later, we all take the Thirteenth Amendment for granted, that the abolition of slavery was inevitable. And perhaps it was, but we can look back and know that the same way that we know how so many other historical stories end.
Daniel Day-Lewis is extraordinary. The entire cast is extraordinary. I have no idea how the stars aligned to create great actors who can look so like Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, and Thaddeus Stevens (to name a few).
I’d like to know more about Mary Todd Lincoln. From what little I know of her, she seems like a tragic figure. Her emotional state was always, shall we say, unsteady. I don’t have the medical expertise to say whether she was clinically insane – to me, the descriptions read like bipolar disorder or maybe chronic depression. And who can blame her – four children, only one of which survived to adulthood, and that one survivor instigated a nasty and very public case to test her sanity. She lost one child when he was four, another died of typhoid at age eleven, and a third from some undetermined illness at eighteen. Her husband was shot while sitting next to her in a theater box. Can anyone blame her if she was a little cracked?
But what really strikes me is the language. The chaotic House of Representatives, in which name-calling is a legitimate political ploy – I now understand how Senator Charles Sumner was severely beaten (IN the Congressional chamber, no less!) by a fellow Senator. It’s kind of remarkable such occurrences weren’t more common.
And then of course there’s Lincoln. His gift of language was remarkable, from the ability to tell funny anecdotes to his ability to turn a powerful, almost Biblical-sounding phrase at the drop of a hat. The film ends with a portion of the Second Inaugural Address. Delivered in Day-Lewis’ rendition of Lincoln’s famously high-pitched yet husky voice, the words held me spellbound as they always do and I felt tears come to my eyes.
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
Second Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1865
Truly one of the most beautiful pieces of rhetoric ever written.