Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lincoln Our Contemporary

“If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, then ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Oh, Maud.  I've just seen the movie. I cannot recall when two and one half hours passed so quickly.

I have sometimes fantasized about time travel, and how I'd like to meet Lincoln, (and Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan) but tonight I had to remind myself I was not watching the actual man.

I am guessing your second man was Secretary of State Seward.  I had not realized how important or righteous he was. He is depicted as even more--a man who could see the genius of what Lincoln was doing, and he could change to accommodate it.

Of course, Thaddeus Stevens is a wonderful character. He really did hate the aristocracy of the South, and all they stood for, and his remarks in the kitchen to Lincoln about what he had planned for the South, the way he would do Reconstruction, comported well with all I've read about him. He wanted to lay waste to the whole region, and rebuild it from the ashes as a totally new place, with new values, if not new people. He wanted to humble the arrogant slave owners.  But Lincoln, as he told Grant in the movie, wanted no such revenge.  He understood you could not change the hearts of men with guns.

I was most relieved that Spielberg did not ruin the movie with his hallmark sentimentality--he always has one scene which is so sentimental, emotionally overwrought and false and obviously pitched to the tear jerker crowd, he can spoil a movie with it. But in this case, he got done with it  in the first scene, with all the soldiers reciting the Gettysburg address, and somehow it worked and was over quickly enough.

But the hard headed decision to focus on the passage of the 13th amendment, and the politics,  was a great one.  I have not read A Team of Rivals, but I have read President Obama has.  If you look at what Mr. Obama has heard from his own supporters (myself included) that he has not been strong enough, not willing to fight for his convictions, not willing to vilify his opposition, as they so richly deserve, you realize Lincoln had to navigate the same waters. That wonderful scene where Lincoln tells Thaddeus Stevens, who has accused him of having no moral compass, "Well, a compass tells you true north, but it doesn't help you to get where you want to go, if there is a swamp in your way. You have to navigate around the swamp." 

In a previous post I said that by 1862 all meaningful opposition to slavery in Congress had left town, but obviously I did not know what I was talking about.  I assumed that without knowing that.  Clearly, the Congress was, like some of the rest of the country, willing to fight to preserve the union without embracing the idea of freedom for the slaves. 

Of course, one of the pleasures of the movie is listening to Lincoln's stories, trying to figure out where he is going, and in the end, the point is always to the point, even if the on screen characters (especially Secretary of War Stanton) cannot see the point. 

The George Washington in the outhouse story really is priceless.

I loved the decision to end the movie with that famous Second Inaugural address--although I wish they had included more of it, especially the part where Lincoln outlines the history of the war, how most people wanted a result less drastic, how, in the end, slavery turned out to be the cause of the war.  

I was also hoping to see in the party scene that wonderful encounter between Lincoln and Harriett Beecher Stowe, where Lincoln bends over to shake the hand of the diminutive author of Uncle Tom's Cabin and says, "So this is the little lady who wrote the book that started the great big war."  Of course, that might not have happened in 1865, and the film makers were cleaving to historical accuracy--except for the soldiers reciting the Gettysburg address. 

So here is a movie without any sex, no female love interest, no chases, no explosions, no shootings, no gun fights, (well, almost none, except for a brief battle scene) and yet it kept me enthralled for 150 minutes. That's quite a feat.


  1. Mad Dog,
    Finally. You and I think alike about Spielberg, during the opening scene I was thinking "Oh no"-it was so contrived but then the sentimentality ended and a wholly different movie followed. To me it was as if the opening scene belonged to a different film. I agree Daniel Day Lewis was amazing. Liam Neeson was originally supposed to star, and I am a fan of his, but I can't imagine anyone doing better than Day Lewis. You've said before that Lincoln was our greatest President because of all he had to deal with and the movie did an incredible job of illustrating all that Lincoln had on his plate. How did he continue to move forward and stay focused while dealing with the war, the complex political scene, post war plans, the 13th amendment and his conflicted feelings about his son joining the military all the while still grieving over the loss of a child(it wasn't just Mary Lincoln who had recently lost a son). The movie humanized Lincoln and that didn't lessen him but made him even more heroic wouldn't you agree.

    The political component was an area I wasn't very familiar with. I would never have imagined Abraham Lincoln engaged in so much behind the scenes politics including turning a blind eye to political bribery , but who would disagree that these were clearly instances where the end justified the means. Not me. Although Secretary of State Seward is a very interesting character- no, an essential one that Lincoln relied heavily on- it was Thaddeus Stevens that I thought was the most fascinating, second to Lincoln of course. Not being as well versed as you on Lincoln and his political peers I wasn't that familiar with Stevens and was googling him as soon as I got home. Now there is a guy for whom the phrase "walks to the beat of his own drum" was coined. His words and actions would raise a few eyebrows in 2012 so I don't understand why he wasn't run out of town on a rail. His views on racial equality weren't decades ahead of his time but a century ahead of the prevailing views on the subject. How was he able to live openly with a black woman who was not only his business partner but who also occasionally served as the hostess at social events at his home? How did he get away with saying and doing what he pleased no matter how radical for the time? Very intriguing.

    Another thing I really liked about the film was how effective it was in portraying Lincoln the family man in really what amounted to just a few scenes.I especially liked Spielberg's treatment of Mary Lincoln who for once was not portrayed as the crazy albatross dangling from Lincoln's neck. Life is never that simple and there had to be something commendable about her for someone of Lincoln's caliber to marry her in the first place. Spielberg's compassionate portrayal of her as a woman struggling to do the best she could under the extremely stressful circumstances of their life in the White House and the untimely death of her son seems more accurate. At the end of the movie when they are riding in the carriage together and she comments that people will think she was crazy and a burden for him and he responds that they "just don't understand" I thought was very moving and I hope true. You've read a lot about Lincoln-was she really that bad?

    I've never read "Team of Rivals" either although I've wanted to(along with a thousand other books). I guess I'll have to put reading that and a biography of Thaddeus Stevens on the to do list for 2013. By the way, I've started watching "The Wire" -you're right it's great-and your suggestion to use the subtitles was a wise one...

  2. Maud,

    I should have known it was Thad Stevens for you. I googled him too, and learned things I never knew about him. I thought he was simply outraged by the arrogance of the Southern aristocracy, but it was outrage routed in a deeper fury about racism.
    He has so few scenes, but they were, now that you point to him, electric. And he had the greater choice to make than the wily and more erudite Seward. As much as I love Tommy Lee Jones, he would not have been my choice for Stevens--he's too old and tired. He does confrontation and snappy rejoinder well, but look at Stevens' photographs, that hard jaw line, and you may understand what I mean.
    A trivial point.
    A great movie.

  3. Mad Dog,
    Once again, I agree with you. I was thinking how great it would be if they would do a film on Stevens, but my next thought was I hope they don't cast Tommy Lee Jones even though I to am a fan of his. I did see photos of Stevens and he is handsomely imposing in a way that Tommy Lee Jones is not. It would have to be someone who could project intellectual fierceness which would be so much harder to do than physical fierceness that they all can do after a few months at the gym. The only actor that comes to mind is unfortunately Daniel Day Lewis, but he's already etched in my mind as Lincoln so he's eliminated. In any case I do hope they consult with us before casting...

  4. Maud,

    When it comes to Lincoln, I'm a dilettante.
    From what I've read of Mary Lincoln, she may be one of those women who can attract a man who is socially maladroit with her assurance and dramatics, but, like Elizabeth Taylor, she may not wear well. On the other hand, as she was portrayed in the movie, she had a point about the need to get the White House in order for the sake of representing the USA as something less than backwoods. She did that with a vengeance and her spending was pretty extravagant. She was, I believe, the daughter of slave owners and a Southern (or Kentucky) aristocrat. More Scarlet O'Hara than Hilary Clinton.
    Willie's death from typhoid was devastating to both parents, I think we can all safely assume. Lincoln knew personally what it was to lose a child. His letter to the mother who had lost three sons in the war (if he wrote it) shows that understanding.
    The Wire is a cult. Welcome. For my money, you cannot be an educated American without knowing The Wire. It is simply, as the academics would say, part of the "canon" of what it is to be educated, as Shakespeare once was. If I were president of Harvard, it would be a require Freshman course--all 5 seasons, two semesters. You need to provide updates so I know where you are.
    Mad Dog