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Sunday, November 18, 2012

LINCOLN, THE MAN AND THE MOVIE

I have never really enjoyed history, as such, and tended to avoid movie biopics.  In my maturity, I've come to appreciate, though, that the history courses I took were not necessarily the reality, and there is so much more than what was printed.

Part of this education came when I worked three years for the U.S. Senate, and learned that the Members never wrote their speeches (staff like me did), and neither did the President of the United States.  However, the situation must have changed over time as, best as I can figure out, Abraham Lincoln did, indeed, write the Gettysburg Address.  There are five versions in his handwriting, with personal adjustments.  Interesting to note that he was the second speaker at Gettysburg, with the first, Edward Everett, a famed orator, spending two hours on his.  Lincoln spoke for 2 minutes and got no applause.  Why?  There is no consensus, but I don't think it was the awe of the moment, nor the greatness of the speech.  I suspect the audience expected him to continue, and he was finished.  Also, from all medical reports, he had just contracted smallpox and was not in terrific condition that day.  See, the history books never tell you these kinds of stuff.


Lincoln, the movie about the final four months of his life from the end of 1864, is 150 minutes long, and, while somewhat lugubrious at times, nevertheless was epic and meaningful.  It took #3 this weekend to that vampire film as #1 and Skyfall #2.  Daniel Day-Lewis (he actually sounded American) was perfect for the part, and while he is only around 6'1" tall, the cinema angles and shortness (Mary, wife of Abe, was played by former Singing Nun Sally Fields, who is 5'2") of the other actors made him look like 6'4", which was Lincoln's height, the tallest of our Presidents (with Lyndon B. Johnson).  Mary Todd Lincoln, who was shorter than 5'2", must have gotten around, for she was earlier wooed by Steven Douglas (those debates in 1858 with Lincoln are in the books--and he beat Abraham for the U.S. Senate that year--they were both from Illinois), who, as a Democrat, lost to Lincoln in the 1960 Presidential Election.  You know, Sally kind of looks like Mary.  For some reason, I thought she was regal and superior from my history memory.  In the movie, Mary was a mental wreck and too much the mother.

Lincoln in the movie was witty and humorous, somehow, not characteristics I remember.  This kept bothering me until my mind said, aha, this is Cosmo Kramer (left, from Seinfeld) playing an understated Lincoln.  Mind you, I repeat, Daniel Day-Lewis (right) was also perfect for the role.

Oh, I should remind you that you don't get much about the overall movie from my postings.  I just point our interesting things.  Rotten Tomatoes gave Lincoln a 90% rating from reviewers and 89% from the audience.  About right, for Argo got 95% and Skyfall 92%.  The Los Angeles Times raved.

While the history was essentially true, here is a counterpoint, arguing that the Civil War had very little to do with slavery and everything to do with economic policy.  In the film, Lincoln kept repeating his drive, which was freedom for blacks.  His earlier track record showed no such fervor.

The politics also amused me.  Lincoln (he actually was a Whig until that party self-destructed) and his Republicans from the North were for abolition.  His opposition were Democrats and those from the South (Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were Democrats) wanting to maintain slavery.  Huh?  Remember the Red and Blue states from the recent election?  Remember the people of color predominantly voting for Obama?  The South is now Republican and remains a touchy area for equal rights.  How things can change.

I was particularly surprised by the acting of James Spader, who played a buffoon-like lobbyist.  You'll hardly recognize him.  He is one of three hired by President Lincoln to bend the arms of House members with patronage to gain votes for passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, during a lame duck period where the only hope for passage was to convince a few of the 64 Democrats kicked out of office to vote for the end of slavery.  The Emancipation Proclamation had already been declared in 1863, freeing slaves in the ten Confederate states.  Note that all the other states could still have slavery.  The story had much to do with Lincoln wanting to delay the end of the Civil War so that this amendment could pass.  I can spend the next thousand words trying to explain the logic here, but won't, although that was 90% of the film.  Did it pass?  Well, there is a 13th (there are 27, with the first ten being the Bill of Rights) Amendment.  I could also swear that Donald Sutherland was on a horse near the end, you know, a campy cameo, as he continues to be President in Hunger Games, but, no, I guess not.

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