One of the greatest actors of all time, who already slightly resembles Lincoln in his gauntness, playing our 16th president was highly anticipated by movie and history buffs alike. Being lucky enough to see it midnight on Friday, it was a real special treat, especially for those of us who were looking to forget about election results.
When Hollywood tackles history there is always cause for concern. You wonder each time if they will re-jigger the historical content to fit their political beliefs. But Spielberg did right by Lincoln in capturing the pain he felt about the war.
There have been a great deal of books about Lincoln in the last twenty years, and one of the most telling is Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk examines various points in Lincoln’s life where his state of depression had a great effect on him.
Spielberg focuses on the period at the end of the Civil War when Lincoln wants the 13th Amendment passed, even if it means staving off peace until the votes are in. All throughout this movie we see a president deeply introspective as he tries to comfort his White House team.
Some argue that Day-Lewis’ accent caused him to stretch to a point where Lincoln’s voice is strained. We do not know what Lincoln’s voice sounded like, but it is a little more high-pitched in this movie than you may expect. Lincoln’s height makes us think that he had a deep voice, but he may not have, and five minutes into the movie you buy Day-Lewis as the 16th president of the United States.
Day-Lewis has played a lot of historic figures, such as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. His take on Lincoln did not seem stretched. In fact, it dragged just enough to not seem labored.
One challenge in telling a historical story is that American audiences get bored. Spielberg kept the drama in the U.S. Senate at a high level so as to convey the importance of the passing of the 13th Amendment.
The other important element to Spielberg’s Lincoln is how he showed the president’s intelligence. It is a lonely existence for leaders who are smarter than their cabinet members. Lincoln, whether at home with a hysterical wife or leaning on trusted staff, is almost always lonely. The loneliness rests on Lincoln’s face in this movie better than in any other modern depiction.
It was interesting to see how votes were bought and arms twisted in Congress in a way that is not so different today. The only difference is that today there are so many well-financed interests. Back then votes were bought the old-fashioned way – with appointment jobs for members who went in the president’s direction.
Another fun part of the movie - and this could not have been anticipated by Spielberg - was how Lincoln and his party were the only Republicans who won anything last week. If you were hoping a smart, humble guy with a great head of hair was going to win on Election Day, you should beat a path to see Lincoln and get your fix.
Thankfully, I got to see this movie when I did.