Friday, January 25, 2013

America’s greatest President by Britain’s greatest actor

To date, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the best movie made about America’s sixteenth president, his times and political challenge. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but it is better than about anything else I’ve seen on the subject.

So you won't be fooled, this is the real Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

Like others of Spielberg’s successful historical films, the setting is right, and there is a strong feeling of the era. In Lincoln I felt transported to 1865; to a world of bad hair, lumpy clothing, muddy streets, women in bonnets and hoop skirts. There was one risk Spielberg and his star, Daniel Day-Lewis, faced. No one alive today has  heard Lincoln speak. The film makers went by a contemporary description of Lincoln’s speaking voice. It has upset some viewers; I think they expect Lincoln to have a voice more suited to his historical stature, perhaps deeper. Day-Lewis said Lincoln’s voice would have been more stentorian, and carried for long distances in those days before sound amplification. He gave Honest Abe the cornpone accent in a slightly higher register than his own voice. I thought the accent sounded right, even if in this case I don't know exactly what “right” is. What it did was make me think of Lincoln the lawyer, exhorting a jury in a voice and tone they would find very down home for them.

Spielberg took a narrower view of Lincoln's presidency than is usually done, focusing in on a short period of time, and Lincoln’s fight for the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery. It was a turning point in American history. For all of the teary eyes and chest-swelling the Declaration of Independence gives patriotic Americans, it’s worth remembering that “all men are created equal” meant white European men, not Africans (or the indigenous native American population, either).

Playwright Tony Kushner, who also wrote Angels in America, has given us a vibrant and living account of that period at the end of the war as the politicking and rhetoric in Congress reach high levels. Actors like David Straitharn (Secretary of State Seward) and Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln) have wonderful verisimilitude as their characters; Tommy Lee Jones, who is an important piece of the whole ensemble as Thaddeus Stevens, is played by Jones as he plays all his parts. I think they must’ve been thinking of Jones when they cast the part: “We have an irascible character…let’s get Tommy Lee Jones!” He has to be at the top of the casting list when irascibility is called for. He showed more of it at the Golden Globe Awards show. The camera caught him scowling during comedy bits when everyone else was laughing.

I was glad the assassination was, if not glossed over, at least not the focus of the story. It’s been done (you’ll excuse the expression) to death, and in this movie probably could have been avoided altogether. The real crux of the story was the Thirteenth Amendment, and Lincoln’s capture of the perfect moment in time to effect change to the stain that had been on America since the founding of the country.

A wonderful caricature of Day-Lewis in character by Ricardo Martinez.

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