When I first took a look at this new movie, it caught me by surprise. While I had expected to like it, I suddenly decided it was the best film I had ever seen (and I have watched thousands). Thanks to its extended stay at the Colonial Theatre, I returned a week later to check again, which then confirmed my first impression.
In my view, "Lincoln" is our "Hamlet." In both gruesome triumph and tragedy, we experience the suffering that would ultimately lead to his canonization as the patron saint of abolition in the once again United States of America … so to speak.
Decades ago I considered writing a screenplay or a play about Lincoln. Since I was a kid I had been fascinated by the Civil War. During a couple summers my parents had taken me to visit the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg, where Lincoln had also taken major steps along his own path. I still have many old hardbound history books and biographies on my shelves.
But as I watched "Lincoln" on the big screen, I soon realized that in younger years I had learned little about what he was going through in his own time and circumstances.
As the story unfolds in early 1865, we already know what will happen. The Union will win the war. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States will be passed by Congress. Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated.
Nonetheless there are deep and, to some historical figures, torturous conflicts, complications and compromises that various characters must struggle through and somehow endure.
Will the basic premise of the 13th Amendment be that all men are created equal, or simply that all men, regardless of race, must be treated equally under the law? The very question is an immoral betrayal in the torn dreams of avid abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a terrible defeat, yet perhaps a practical necessity in order to win enough votes.
Is the political corruption of buying votes from Democrats defeated in the recent election by openly offering them government jobs when they’re out of office – but requiring their voting in favor of the 13th Amendment before their departure – in clear violation of ethics yet critical to passage anyway (and thereby somehow justifiable)?
Is/was there a real possibility that the Confederates would surrender without further loss of life if Lincoln would simply postpone the 13th Amendment until former Confederate states and their elected representatives returned to Congress with enough votes to quash abolition and allow slavery, maybe until 1900?
While Lincoln’s own political views changed during the war from victory as the first priority to abolition as the legacy that he and the war would leave behind, could he somehow manage to work through all the obstacles to some decent resolution of what had led to catastrophic internal warfare? He sees dead and dying soldiers lying on the ground. They are just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who had died. Will the victory be worth the loss without winning the abolition of slavery?
The average camera shot in a contemporary Hollywood movie is less than two seconds. Longer shots showing one character – much longer shots – were/are verboten. The one exception was the last shot in my previous favorite film, "The Third Man" (Orson Welles, 1949). Now in "Lincoln," there are many long, long shots of our hero suffering in silence with no control over what is happening. We feel the pain, moment by moment.
Before seeing "Lincoln," I was dubious about the actors chosen for major roles: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sally Field (the Flying Nun!) as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones (as a radical abolitionist?).
Daniel Day-Lewis is an Englishman (though married to Arthur Miller’s daughter, so I forgive his origins). Still he does not act the part of Lincoln: he lives the role. He doesn’t recite his speeches: he speaks, talks, thinks through his words: profound, eloquent, yet seemingly simple. When he chooses to be humorous, it is sad and strange to those with whom he shares his weird wit. Yes, this is the Lincoln I knew.
He suffers. Sally Field suffers. Tommy Lee Jones suffers. We empathize. Forget the Oscars: all would be a perfect fit with the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Is this what really happened? Gore Vidal had a somewhat different view of Lincoln, though his work was criticized by fact-checkers. Although the new "Lincoln" was reportedly researched for 10 years (and the research credits on screen roll by oh, so quickly, like dozens of pages of a telephone book riding by), there are now fact-checkers questioning this great film as well.
To me any details and differences are unimportant. "Lincoln" is a play, a screenplay. Even if it is fiction, we see the truth of the heavy burdens the president was morally forced to bear in his last days. We understand his agony, and we are once more made aware of his strengths. We know why he is a hero in spite of the horrible challenges and carnage he faced, yet we also witness moments of humor in spite of it all.
Passage of the 13th Amendment involves a compromise of fundamental beliefs in order to achieve political results. But after all was said and done, freeing slaves was the right thing to do, whatever it took to get it done.
Abraham Lincoln stood his ground as best he could. That is the legacy, the eternal statue he left behind. The movie "Lincoln" pays due tribute to his courage on behalf of all.
By the bye, sitting in the Colonial Theatre and watching the big screen with high definition was like being in the room with the characters in front of us. And it is altogether fitting that my review of this film can be in The Republican Journal.
Fritz Lyon is a writer and professional public relations pundit residing in Belfast.