Wednesday, February 20, 2013

About that Lincoln movie

Other bloggers, Lincoln scholars and movie critics wrote about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln months ago. 
So, why didn’t I?

Good question. Life, I guess—or maybe I just needed time to think about what I wanted to say. 

As with any book or movie which I plan to review, though, I did not read a review—not a single one. Oh, I listened to a couple of question and answer-type sessions—one with Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, one with Sally Field, and another, a Google+ Hangout with Team of Rivals author Doris Kearns Goodwin, but I kept my vow of letting no one else’s opinion of the movie influence mine. 

By way of introduction, here’s my role in the Lincoln world. 

Not a scholar
 I’m not a trained academic scholar. I’m not a published author. 

I have, though, admired the 16th President since I was a small child, for as long as I can remember. I was born a block from the site of his Galesburg, Ill. Lincoln-Douglas Debate, held at Knox College’s Old Main. As a child I soaked up all I could learn on field trips to Lincoln sites; as a parent I was excited when my children had the same experiences.
As a late-in-life college student, I studied Lincoln and his force on the history and literature of Illinois in as many courses as I could. Upon graduation, I reviewed several Lincoln-related books for the Springfield, Ill. newspaper. 

I was the seventh person in line to see the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on the day it opened to paying customers. In the Lincoln Bicentennial year, I attended Lincoln scholarly events and visited Lincoln sites in Springfield, Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg. I met most of the leading Lincoln scholars, reviewed books and events, and wrote more than 200 blog posts related to the Bicentennial. 

Though I’m not a Lincoln scholar, I am a Lincoln enthusiast. I’m not an expert on Lincoln and politics, Lincoln and the Civil War, or Lincoln and his presidency. But I can say that I know an awful lot about young Lincoln, Lincoln’s Illinois years, and his wife and family. Few who know me will dispute that.

In looking at the film, I’ll speak to the things on which I’m most qualified to comment and leave the things that are beyond me to the experts who understand those things. 

Not much for movies
I’m not much of a movie watcher either. 

I’m a reader and a student. Give me a good book any day and leave the film viewing to people who like those sorts of things—that is unless it’s a Steven Spielberg film. He can make me put my books down for a couple hours—and, even better, can make me glad I did. 

I remember hearing years ago that Spielberg was planning to make a movie about Lincoln. As did the rest of the Lincoln world and movie lovers, I waited … and waited … and waited. 

It was worth the wait. 

A well-woven work
In Spielberg’s Lincoln we see a story carefully woven, images powerfully presented, directing and acting done as none but Spielberg and crew could have done. 

In selecting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as the foundation for his film, Spielberg got off on the right foot. There are many scholars in the Lincoln world, some good, some not-so-much; there are poetic writers and ever-so-boring scribes; there are narrators and there are storytellers. Goodwin is a storyteller. Few equal her gifts in that realm. 

How, though, do you take a book like hers, and condense its more than 900 pages into a film of a couple hours or so? 

Thank goodness, Spielberg got Tony Kushner to do the job. 

I can’t help but think back to Lincoln and his early days in Illinois. Imagine the legendary railsplitter, turning a huge tree into rails to make a fence. Then, imagine that same tree again, but whittled into a likeness of that railsplitter, a spitting image, not too large, not too small, a statue that captured a man so real that the wooden image appeared as the man himself.  

That’s what Kushner did. He took that massive tree of Goodwin’s, whittled and whittled and whittled just so, painstakingly, for years, until he gave us a Lincoln story so real we felt as if we’d stepped back in time and were there watching it unfold in person before our very eyes. 

Again and again as I watched the movie, I had to stop and remind myself, “Ann, this is not the 1860s, you aren’t sitting in that room or walking down those streets. These aren’t the people of Lincoln’s times. They’re actors.” 

Perfect casting
The right actors, in the right roles, directed by only director who could pull it off so well—Steven Spielberg. 

When I heard Daniel Day-Lewis was to play Lincoln I thought, “Last of the Mohicans, yes. Lincoln—really? I just don’t know about that one!” 

Boy, was I ever wrong. From his in-depth study of the man and his mannerisms to the way Day-Lewis brought a voice quieted nearly 150 years ago to life as no one has ever before, Daniel Day-Lewis was Abraham Lincoln. He brought the storyteller, the father, the worry-worn, grieving commander-in-chief to life so well that I often forgot the actor was not the 16th President himself. 

And, as for Sally Field—I’ve admired the woman since I was a youngster watching that nun fly across the tiny black-and-white screen in my parents’ living room. When I heard she was to play Mary Todd Lincoln, I was sure she’d nail the role, and it’s not an easy role to play. Yet, Field played it with a passion, intensity, and believability that will long sear Mrs. Lincoln in the memory of those who watched her. I am convinced no one could have played that role as well as Field—or interacted as well with Day-Lewis.

If there were one thing Kushner and Spielberg could have done better, it would have been to give us a better portrayal of Robert Todd Lincoln. His character seemed rather shallow and his relationships portrayed only as they were known until recent years. 

After publication of Goodwin’s book and as Kushner worked on the screenplay, author Jason Emerson was wrapping up his seminal work, a biography of Robert Todd Lincoln that shows us Lincoln’s oldest son in a depth previously unexplored.

What a shame Emerson’s work wasn’t done earlier or Spielberg’s project later. I would have loved to see the depth this would have added to the story. 

The good news is that we can still study Robert and Mary and the President—and, if we’re so driven, the Civil War, the politics of the day, the presidency, and more. 

It’s a winner
And when we do, whether this film gathers to it every Oscar for which it is nominated, or not, it is a success, nonetheless. It has achieved all that Spielberg, Goodwin, Kushner, the cast, and all of us who study Lincoln wish for—it has awakened in its viewers a desire to learn more about Lincoln, his life and his legacy. 

Doing so, this film and all who helped to create it truly are the winners.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013

(Image via)

Monday, February 18, 2013

I’d love to see the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile …

… ‘Cause everyone would wish that they were me. 

C’mon. Admit it. You know it’s one of those things you never put on your bucket list because you didn’t think it would happen. Neither did I, but guess what—it did!

A few years ago, as my husband and I were driving on an Interstate highway, in the oncoming traffic we saw it—a 27-foot-long hot dog in a bun. 

I figured that was as close as I’d ever come to the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. 

I was wrong.

Earlier this week, I saw a post on my regional electric coop’s Facebook page. Rural Missouri’s note read, “The Wienermobile, Oscar Mayer's Hot Dog of a Car, is coming to central Missouri…” 

That was all I needed to hear. My bucket list is fluid, and at that moment a new item was added. 

Isn’t it something every kid wishes for, after all—to see the Wienermobile and get his or her own whistle shaped like the magnificent machine? 

The kid in me held that wish from the time I learned there was such a thing and put the likelihood at “highly improbable.”

Yet, here it was—the opportunity of a lifetime. 

I was certain my husband would be on board for the trip, until he uttered these words: “I’ve already seen it.” 

My otherwise not-so-privileged-child hubby had done what other kids only dream of. He’d not only seen the Wienermobile as a youngster in Chicago in the 1950s, but he even had a hot dog-shaped whistle all his own. 

If you’re a Baby Boomer, you remember how cherished those whistles were. They were right up there with Daniel Boone coonskin hats, Betsy Wetsy dolls, and Hopalong Cassidy cap guns and holsters. 

At first when hubby told me of his childhood adventure, I felt pangs of jealousy, then a bit of excitement. 

Wow, was my man ever a lucky little boy!

At first, he led me to believe that once was enough for that lucky boy. All evening and part of the next morning, he had me thinking his child heart was packed in a box someplace with a tattered cherished baseball card of the same era, that he had no desire to join me in seeing the vehicle again. 

Up early getting ready on Saturday morning, though, I heard sounds coming from the shower. 

“What are you doing?” I yelled. 

“I may as well go with you,” came the water-garbled answer. 

We rounded curves, drove through hills and hollows, and crossed a few bridges on our way to the capital city. After more than an hour and fifteen minutes on the road, we came around one more curve and there it was—a six-month-old gargantuan hot-dog-on-wheels proudly sporting license plates that read, “Our Dog.”

Climbing the steps beneath the open door of the Weinermobile that morning was a 60-year-old woman turned six-year-old girl again, looking longingly into the bag of whistles Hotdogger Cookout Kelly held in her hands. 

“Do I get a whistle?” I asked. 

“You know what you have to do, don’t you? Can you sing the jingle?” was Kelly’s reply.

As I began to sing with Kelly and her fellow Hotdogger Deli Eliot, I heard another male voice chiming in behind me. 

Hubby and I both earned our Wienermobile whistles that day. 

As we stepped back out of the vessel that took us back more than half a century without firing up its engine or moving a foot, I think we both grew a little younger.

On the way home, I blew the whistle and sang this little ditty: 

“I’m glad I saw the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, ‘cause all my friends will wish that they are me.”

And from the number of “Likes” on my Facebook post when I shared the picture, where I was holding my cherished treasure in front of a jumbo–sized dog in a bun, I’m pretty sure that they really do. 

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sal Litvak’s 'Saving Lincoln': Innovative and entertaining

When you want to make a movie about a big topic, but have a small budget, how do you do it?

You get innovative. 

If you do it right, it works. 

“Saving Lincoln” works.  Director Salvador Litvak got innovative.  

Litvak and his wife, Nina Davidovich, have long wanted to create a film about Abraham Lincoln. They faced a couple of obstacles, though. Another filmmaker, a little better known, was also working on a movie about the 16th president—and Steven Spielberg had just a few more financial resources to work with than the Litvaks. 

As Litvak and Davidovich did their research for the film, they were drawn into photographs from the period. Knowing that shooting on location was probably not financially feasible given their budget, Litvak wondered if he couldn’t use the photos as the setting —and that’s exactly what he did. 

The movie’s scenes were shot against a green screen, and Litvak used a process he calls CineCollage to make the scenes come to life against real 19th century backdrops. It works, and I suspect we’ll see more of this process over time.

“Saving Lincoln” tells a Lincoln story that has not yet been told on the big screen—the tale of the relationship between Lincoln and his colleague, a fellow attorney and business partner from the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit, Ward Hill Lamon. 

In the days when the two practiced together in the Danville, Ill. area, they bonded in the courts by day and the taverns by night, where Lincoln’s storytelling and Lamon’s banjo picking helped to fill the long dark evenings and mesmerize the prairie folk. 

In actor Tom Amandes, we see a Lincoln, young at first, worry-worn toward his final days, and actor consistent in his depiction of a man who could cackle from the depths of his being at a good joke, including his own, and carry the burdens of a nation upon his shoulders. We see a father’s relationship with his children and his mourning at the loss of one during the White House years. We see the power of the president’s relationship with his complex wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. 

Because this film is not as much about Lincoln’s relationship with his wife as it is with Lamon, in Penelope Ann Miller’s portrayal of Mrs. Lincoln, we see a mother’s love for her children, a wife’s worries about her husband. One of the strongest bits of writing in the play is not in the script itself, but the way Mrs. Lincoln’s anguish is portrayed from a distance. 

I don’t remember seeing Lea Coco, who plays Lamon, on screen before, but he’s got a new fan.

Every once in a while you met someone whose eyes help to capture the essence of their character, who pierce you, saying, “I am this character and all he represents.” Lea Coco does that with Ward Hill Lamon. Many times in the film what he doesn’t say is as powerful as what he does. It takes a knack as a film writer to create those scenes and a gift as an actor to pull it off. 

In addition to these three key characters, I can’t fail to mention Bruce Davison’s portrayal of William H. Seward. Though I’ve always enjoyed his work and loved his role as Nick Anderson in the 2009 film, “Christmas Angel,” Davison was Seward come to life in this film. I like the actor even more now than I did before. 

And, as for Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker Elizabeth (Lizzie) Keckley—she had me so spellbound that I forgot she wasn’t really Lizzie. 

Over the past few years, I’ve been as anxious to see this film completed and showing as I was to see that other Lincoln movie—and in different ways I liked each as much as the other. 

Anyone comparing Litvak’s film with Spielberg’s does both artists an injustice. The films aren’t the same, as either director will attest—yet Litvak and his wife and Spielberg and his writer have some things in common in creating these film, and the films themselves share a commonality. 

Like Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner’s, the Litvaks’ writing is engaging, enlightening, and entertaining.

The filmmakers/writers share a thirst for knowledge about Abraham Lincoln, and they share a desire to create that thirst in others. 

In this respect, both films are spot on. Just as “Lincoln” does, “Saving Lincoln” leaves its viewers with questions about Lincoln and his legacy. 

If those of us who study Lincoln or share his story in our work or artistic endeavors can light a spark of interest about Lincoln in others, we’ve been successful. 

Because it does this, “Saving Lincoln” gets my accolades. 

See the film: I had the joy of seeing the inaugural public screening of “Saving Lincoln” on Feb. 11. The viewing was sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Association and shown at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. 

Don’t miss your chance to see the film this weekend (Feb. 15-16) and next week at select theatres throughout the country. If it doesn’t come to your city, watch for the release of the film soon on iTunes and DVD.

Blogger’s note: I also had the privilege from early on to serve as an historical advisor and to help to connect Nina Davidovich and Sal Litvak with others who could answer their questions about Lincoln and Lamon. I loved their excitement. 

I expected them to deliver a project worth paying attention to. 

They did. 

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

It matters. Here’s why

A couple weeks ago, as I was wrapping up my day as a writer and editor, I mentioned to a colleague that I was going to grab a bite to eat, and squirrel away in my room with my laptop and a cup of coffee to begin reading more than 70 newspaper articles for a press association contest I had volunteered to judge. 

She wrote back, “GEEEEZ! Why are you volunteering to judge?? That sounds like a nightmare!”

Immediately, my fingers went into defense mode. 

“You want to know why?” I thought. “HERE’S WHY!” 

Ask any seasoned communicator and they’ll tell you that using all capital letters is shouting, so as much as I wanted to shout, I left those thoughts off the page. 

Instead my answer went something like this: 

“I vowed when I moved to my new community that I’d volunteer where my talents matter most, doing things others can’t. Much of that will be communication-related. I follow an area press association on Facebook. They are judging an award competition for another association, just as someone else will volunteer to judge for their awards. 

“In the past, I’ve also done this sort of thing for industry organization award programs and scholarship competitions. I’m working with a local organization on its leadership program, too. 

“It’s my way of giving back for all the support I’ve received from others through the years. Without the example, guidance, and encouragement of other professional writers and editors, I wouldn’t be doing this for a living today. 

“It matters.”

I guess I shocked my colleague as much as if I had “shouted” at her, for she wrote back right away, “You’re exactly right. It does matter.” 

Then she wrote, “I hope you weren’t offended by my question,” and suggested that perhaps I had a story here, about why volunteering matters. 

Gee, do you think? 

After all, I’d almost written the thing already, hadn’t I? 

“Yeah,” I wrote back. “I probably should.”

I thought back to the touch others’ volunteer efforts have had on my life and my career. 

As a writer—absolutely. And in other ways, too.

When I submitted my first paid book review to a contest sponsored by my local chapter of the Association of Women in Communication, it was a volunteer communicator somewhere who judged it. The award encouraged me to keep writing.

Later, I submitted other entries. Again, volunteers judged my work. 

When the appeal came to our chapter to judge entries for another state, I didn’t see it as an obligation. I saw it as a privilege. How rewarding to see the work of other writers and to play a part in acknowledging them for their works of excellence.

But even before that, there were volunteers at work in my life—the fourth-grade teacher who gave up some of her nights and weekends to lead our church choir, the high school student who spent a week in the summer and one afternoon a week during the school year working with my Girl Scout troop, the parents and teachers who chaperoned our high school dances. 

My life was touched by each of them. From the choir director, I learned to appreciate Latin. From the Girl Scout, still a friend today, I learned that dreams are worth pursuing. From a pair of chaperones who loved to do the polka, I learned you’re never too old to live life with gusto. 

Fifteen hours of reading later, the newspaper articles are judged. 

Those small town journalists painted pictures of their communities that made me feel as if I knew their residents and made me wish I lived where they did. They entertained me, amazed me with their talents as writers and storytellers, and made me feel as fortunate to read their work as they will feel when they receive their honors. 

We all need a little encouragement through life, a nudge to go after the things that matter to us, a pat on the back for a job well done. 

I’ve been blessed again and again to be on the receiving end when people volunteer their time and their talents. When asked, I’ll volunteer mine. 


It matters. That’s why.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013

(Image via)