Abraham Lincoln: Man and movie

As a student, writer, and sometimes performer of Abraham Lincoln, I’m occasionally asked what I think of books, movies or portrayals of our 16th president. I love these questions – any excuse to talk about my hero president is good for me.

Now with the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” I’m asked about it and the accuracy of its plot and performances. I saw the movie with my son, Jeff, his son, Alex, and several good friends from The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable on Nov. 20 at the Regal Cinema in Westlake. While this movie couldn’t compete for attendance with the latest “Twilight,” there was a good number in our audience.

I enjoyed and appreciated “Lincoln” and while there were things I wished had been included (opening the movie with Lincoln delivering his Gettysburg Address) and minor things I would have changed (some awkward dialog), I highly recommend it to all audiences. I was especially pleased to see my 12-year-old grandson’s rapt attention to every scene. He even said afterwards that it didn’t seem like a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is not Lincoln as “Father Abraham” but rather as Lincoln – political Godfather. His performance at times reminded me as much of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” as it did Abraham Lincoln. Even the scene with the first appearance of the wartime president is reminiscent of the opening scene in the great Brando movie.

This is not to criticize the depiction since I think it comes close to the real Lincoln, a kind man who had to brutally take on all opponents – military and political – to achieve his ultimate goal. The movie takes us through the process needed to make his achievement permanent in our country by an amendment to our constitution forever outlawing slavery.

Sally Field, who has had to outlive her early frivolous but entertaining roles, with many serious parts proving her very real acting ability, brings Mary Lincoln to life as a demanding wife and political partner with her husband in changing the country for the better.

Sally gets Mary right – with all her complexities and emotions during a very trying time for her. Catherine Clinton, a recent biographer of Lincoln’s first lady agrees, telling an audience I was in that Sally embodies all that was Mary Lincoln – one of the most controversial people in American history.

While the story of how the 13th Amendment is finally passed by Congress is shown with much dramatic license - events and persons involved – the historical truth of the process and its outcome remains intact. Spielberg told our gathering at the National Cemetery in Gettysburg on Nov. 19 that he is not a historian but rather a maker of historical fiction noting the great differences therein.

The messy democratic procedures – official and backroom – are played out well in performances by Tommy Lee Jones as the rigid, irascible Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as William Seward and James Spader as political arm twister W.N. Bilbo. Supporting their brilliant acting are many others with each taking their roles as individual gems no matter how briefly they are on the screen.

“Lincoln,” thanks to Spielberg, Day-Lewis and writer Tony Kushner, comes closer to giving us a Lincoln as he really was, a man embodying a great mind and kind heart with a passion to do what is right. One who will go to any lengths to accomplish what he set out to do, one driven to save democracy at all costs, one who hated slavery all of his life and would see that it was eliminated from our land. Lincoln did all of that, giving his life in the process.

This is a very entertaining movie and an important movie too – telling the story of several weeks in the life of a great man, defining and saving democracy for us and the world.

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Volume 4, Issue 24, Posted 10:41 AM, 11.27.2012