Meridian Star

Columns

November 18, 2012

Finally Lincoln comes to life

MERIDIAN — Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" opened in wide release Friday. It lives up to the hype and reviews that have been circulating.

    It is based on the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. While her book examines Lincoln's White House years, "Lincoln" focuses on the last four months of the 16th president's life, while the Civil War draws to an end, and he races to get the votes needed to propose the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution to abolish slavery.

    This film humanizes Lincoln like we've never seen before. Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln, delivers an entirely believable portrayal of the curious, lanky, awkward, witty, and wise chief executive — even with that silly hat — without becoming a caricature of the larger-than-life historic figure we've always seen before.

    At two and a-half hours, with what seems like constant dialogue, the film still flies by thanks to a screenplay by Tony Kushner.

    At the same time the imagery makes you feel like you are in the 19th century. Part of the reason for that is based on what we've seen of that period on canvas. In a recent interview Spielberg said the look of the film was influenced by 19th century art where painters were taken with using available light, which consisted of gas lamps and candles indoors, besides whatever sunlight might be coming through a window. It creates a lot of contrast.

    What a perfect look for that time, and for the subject — the Civil War, the debate over slavery, what's legal, what's not, right and wrong.

    Sally Field's portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln is just as perfect as Day-Lewis' work. She put on 25 pounds to play the plump first lady, who was a force no one could ignore, as was Radical Republican U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, of Pennsylvania, played in the film by Tommy Lee Jones.

    I'll be surprised if we don't see at least five Academy Award nominations for this movie — for Spielberg, Day-Lewis, Field, Jones, and Kushner. James Spader's portrayal of political operative W.N. Bilbo deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod, too.

    As fascinating as these real-life characters were, brought to life for us on the screen, the filthy political process — the way things get done — that's the real story here. A lot was different in 1865. So many things are still the same.

    "Lincoln" is rated PG-13. Here's a couple of related details you won't get from the film:

    1). Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, proposed by the 38th Congress, but he wasn't suppose to do that. Presidents don't sign constitutional amendments. The Senate had to go back and make some notation that his signature wasn't necessary.

    2). The Legislatures of 27 of the 36 states that existed in 1865 had to ratify the amendment before it could be adopted into the constitution. Only 21 states ratified it before Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, including four Confederate states — Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas. After his death the states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and the Confederate states of South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia made up the difference by Dec. 6, 1865. Eventually the other nine states that were around at the time ratified it, if only as a symbolic gesture: Oregon, California, and Florida later in December 1865; Iowa, and New Jersey in 1866; Texas in 1870; Delaware in 1901; Kentucky in 1976; and Mississippi in 1995.

    Steve Gillespie is managing editor of

The Meridian Star. E-mail him at

sgillespie@themeridianstar.com.

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