Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Lincoln" with Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Fields (2012)

Outstanding performances by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln; and Tommy Lee Jones as the irrepressible Congressman Thaddeus Stevens; make this film come to life in the hands of director Steven Spielberg. Focusing as he does, on the last part of Lincoln’s life, between November 1864 and the passage of the 13th Amendment in January 1865; which prohibits slavery, lends the urgency which drives this film. During this period of time, with the nation almost at the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had to face a very hard choice. He could accept the negotiated peace sought by the Southern States, or he could continue fighting to achieve the goal of abolishing slavery in the United States forever. To do otherwise would leave the question open; and by necessity would have to be dealt with again sometime in the future.

Daniel Day- Lewis gives one of the most nuanced performances of his career in this film. Some viewers may find the President’s voice to be surprisingly high pitched and slightly nasal. This is no mere interpretation on the part of Mr. Day. That is how Lincoln spoke. Although there are no voice recordings of the man, there are many written descriptions concerning the subject. His interpretation of the President, and his penchant for story telling in order to communicate a point, is spot on to everything we know about Lincoln. His affection for his sons is palpable, as is his consternation with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, brilliantly portrayed by the lovely Sally Fields.
Thaddeus Stevens; one of the most important characters in this film; known as the 'dictator' of Congress; was born in Vermont and moved to Pennsylvania after completing his education at Dartmouth.  He became a member of the Federalist Party, but moved to the Anti-Masonic Party, before becoming a Whig, and then finally joining the Republican Party. In 1833, he became a congressman, running on an Anti-Masonic platform. He served as Congressman until 1842. During his time in local office he opposed the state constitution because it did not permit African-Americans to vote. In 1848 he returned to Congress, serving until 1853 as a Whig. He then returned as a Republican in 1853, serving until his death in 1869. Passage of the 13th Amendment would not have been possible without him.

In his personal life he was never really married, living for 23 years with his quadroon widowed housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith. She was considered to be his common in law wife and neighbors referred to her as Mrs. Stevens. She had 2 sons by her first husband, both of whom were adopted by Mr. Stevens. She invested some of her own money in a boardinghouse and several other businesses which were prosperous and provided for her in old age after the death of Mr. Stevens. When he passed away he left her a choice of taking a lump sum payment, or an annual stipend. She chose the lump sum, using it to buy the house where she and Mr. Stevens had lived their lives together.
The film captures the mood of the nation as the Civil War is about to come to a close. The South was exhausted, both spiritually as well as materially, and a delegation was sent to Washington to negotiate peace terms. This was all done in great secrecy, with the President rejecting any offer that did not end the slavery issue once and for all. To this end a new Amendment was proposed to abolish slavery forever. The Congress was sharply divided on the issue, concerned that the Southern states would never agree to uphold the Amendment. The Southern negotiators wanted to be admitted back into the Union before the Amendment was ratified by the Senate. Lincoln was adamant in getting the Amendment; the first of the “Reconstruction Amendments”; ratified before the Southern states retook their place in the Senate, where it could strike the Amendment down.

This is the dilemma which Lincoln faces in the closing months of 1864 and January 1865, as he struggles with the Democrats, as well as his own Republican Party, to assure passage of the Amendment. Calling in every favor owed, and twisting arms when all else failed, the President was able to push the bill through Congress, where it was proposed, and passed on January 31st, 1865. The law was then approved by the President on February 1st; even though the Constitution does not allow for that occurrence. The bill was not formally ratified by the Senate until December 1865, some 8 months after the President’s death. This may not have been clear in the film.
The makeup, and performances, by each of the principal actors  were extraordinary.  As a director, Steven Spielberg is without a doubt one of the great film makers of our time. And with this film, he has once again proven that point.

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