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Book Reviews

“Lincoln” Hits the Screens

November 16, 2019

It seems like new Lincoln books are published every week, but Lincoln movies are something else. We have looked forward to the making and release of Steven Spielberg’s biopic for some time and went to see it on its second day of release in our part of the country.

No doubt many Railsplitters headed to the multiplexes and gladly forked over their “coin” to see the 2 1/2 hour feature, so we are not telling you anything you don’t already know, but “Lincoln” is a terrific film that was well worth the wait.

Unlike other Lincoln films that span many years in Lincoln’s life, this work covers a brief period, from Lincoln’s re-election to his assassination. It focuses in on efforts to pass in the House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. As such, it has the three essentials to a successful film, often lacking, namely: unity, direction and purpose.

Despite his reputation in the business, we were somewhat apprehensive about the lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, as we thought his performances in “There Will Be Blood” and “The Gangs of New York” were over-the-top. These fears were misplaced. Day-Lewis has taken the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln to a whole new level which merits being called the definitive interpretation. He looks exactly like Lincoln, speaks like and sounds like Lincoln probably sounded. Lincoln’s layered personality is accurately depicted, including his penchant for story-telling, his highly-honed skills as a politician and his feelings regarding slavery and democracy. His relationship with his wife Mary and his sons Tad and Robert is likewise represented in a dramatic and compelling manner. The only element that seems to have gotten short shrift is Lincoln’s religious views which became more and more integral to his speech and thoughts as the war neared an end.

There are several Oscar-worthy performances, including Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. The actors who played Seward, Robert Todd Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were also highly effective.

There were some flaws of a minor nature. The costumes and sets were all accurate, although they used nylon flags, rather than wool bunting (picky, picky, picky!). The actors who played Schuyler Colfax, George Pendleton and Fernando Wood did not look the part. We were waiting to see if Stanton would say “Now he belongs to the ages” at the time of Lincoln’s death or the more likely and accurate comment “Now he belongs to the angels.” They went with the traditional and perhaps more dramatic quote. There were also some contrived scenes which were inserted to provide some additional insight into the characters. These included a threatening harangue from Mary to her husband, delivered “sotto voce” at an opera performance, an encounter between President Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley on the White House porch soliciting the thoughts of both parties to the role regarding black people’s place in society after ratification of the 13th Amendment, and a unsettling physical encounter between the President and Robert outside a military hospital. Lincoln’s gift as a speaker and his immortal words are rather arbitrarily injected via the two scenes which serve as “bookends” for the movie. In the opening scene which takes place at a train depot or military encampment, Lincoln is harangued by a black soldier who complains about unequal pay and lack of promotion, followed by an encounter with two white soldiers who were “conveniently” present, as civilians, during the Gettysburg Address and are able to quote parts of it to an uncomfortable and impatient Lincoln. The last scene of the film, following the death-bed scene at the Peterson House, shows Lincoln delivering parts of his Second Inaugural Address.

This film has a great many things to commend itself and we urge all Railsplitters who have not already done so to see for themselves.