We went to see “Lincoln” last night and it was so great that I’m thinking it would be a good idea not to see another movie for at least three months. And as far as the Best Actor Oscar goes, what’s the point of even pretending to consider other nominees?
Before going to the movie, having read a few things about the film and having watched a clip of Daniel Day-Lewis and his high-strained-voice depiction of Lincoln, I figured it would take me a while to get used to his portrayal. Nope. It took all of 20 seconds and I was sold. It was like watching Richard Burton inhabit the person of Winston Churchill in “The Gathering Storm.” The overall depiction is so believable that almost immediately you cannot remember what the real historical figure looked or sounded like.
What also surprised me was that the movie theater was almost full, and Lisa and I may have been on the somewhat younger side of the audience demographic. I haven’t seen that many old-timers at a movie in decades.
I do wonder how many people in their 20s or 30s will sit through a movie that is largely focused on the arcane deliberations of the House of Representatives, with many of the members of that body spouting polysyllabic insults at each other. But the deliberations deal with the Thirteenth Amendment, which declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” That is a rather compelling topic, and the entire cast — daunted and inspired in equal parts by Daniel Day-Lewis — turns in pitch-perfect performances.
Not least among them is Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s self-centered, mercurial, half-deranged wife. There is a scene in their bedroom where she taunts him for once having threatened to clap her into an asylum and for supposedly lacking compassion for their dead son. Day-Lewis is at his best here, but Field is his match, and it makes for a scene of almost overwhelming emotion.
I was going to mention how surprisingly brilliant Tommy Lee Jones was as Thaddeus Stevens, but then I started to think how many other actors I would have to mention, so forget it. The main thing is that this movie captures the mood and texture and mindset of that era as it has never been set down before, at least according to what I know of the era. I read “Team of Rivals,” on which this is partly based, as well as three or four biographies of Lincoln and the incomparable “Valley of Shadows” by Francis Grierson, a partly fictional evocation of the Illinois prairie on which Lincoln grew up. Parts of all of them are here, always convincingly.
As good as the plot was, though, I could have sat for another two hours and just watched Day-Lewis being Lincoln. Every time Lincoln launches into one of his characteristic yarns, Day-Lewis has him pause first and smile, partly in recollecting his own enjoyment of the yarn, partly no doubt in anticipation of how funny or perfectly appropriate the yarn is going to be. There is even my favorite, which I have seen only in “Team of Rivals,” which ends with the line, “Nothing will make an Englishman shit so fast as the sight of General Washington.” In the book it is given rather flatly, but here Day-Lewis/Lincoln drags it out for a couple of minutes, just as such a great storyteller would do, and in front of a whole, hushed crowd of soldiers in the Army’s telegraph room.
If there is a flaw in the movie, it may be in sometimes approaching too close to treating Lincoln with worshipful devotion. But that is probably an inevitable temptation. Even someone as great himself as Tolstoy had this to say about Lincoln: “The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years. … He was bigger than his country–bigger than all the Presidents together … and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”
Amen, and in this movie Daniel Day-Lewis does him complete justice. What more could you ask for?