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

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