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Lincoln: History in Costume

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]borderstan.com.

"lincoln"I do not like movies that teach lessons. I find costume drama artificial, and I am deeply suspicious of history films punctuated by rousing (or pitiful) music designed to make us get the point. That means that I try to avoid films by Stephen Spielberg. I went to see Lincoln out of my sense of duty as a movie fan rather than  a burning desire to sample one more historical epic.

I was wrong. Lincoln is a really good film when it gets down to portraying the negotiations that went into getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed. It manages action and dialogue and setting wisely,  explaining what was at stake and why President Abraham Lincoln was so adamant about maneuvering Congress into doing the right thing at the end — only a month or so before his second inauguration… and his death.

Of course, the film shares the usual drawbacks of filming history. One is complexity. So many roles need to be filled in Lincoln that Spielberg must have auditioned all the TV actors that were  on hiatus from Law & Order or CSI for them. So one of the distractions of the movie is trying to figure out where you’ve ever seen the actor before Lincoln?  The venomous looking leader of the New York voting bloc — is that you, Jackie Earle Haley?  Jackie Earle Haley?  The last time I saw you in a movie, you were playing a spindly teenager in the long-forgotten indie movie, Breaking Away.

There is a lot of facial hair in Lincoln, and it can also distract. Nevertheless, Tommy Lee  Jones manages to break through his elaborate hair get-up to convey the passion of his original — the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. The other actors in Lincoln do almost as well, and you can find out how closely they follow their originals if you Google a few.

Daniel Day-Lewis did not need many physical changes to fit the role of Lincoln. From time to time he does seem more a figure in costume than the real man — the one sculpted in marble by Daniel Chester French, watching over us from the Memorial at the west end of the Mall. But as I got used to the movie, I realized that I was watching a fine performance by Day-Lewis.

I got the sense that the actor was melding all the history-book details about Lincoln’s posture and voice to create the portrait of a determined, downright leader who was not above the politics of coercion when sweet persuasion wouldn’t work. Day-Lewis’s performance is, then,  a wonderful piece of historical imagination.

There are, of course, other excellent parts in the film. I would count the performance of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln among them. She and Day-Lewis enact a believable version of a long-term marriage that is full of give and take. And since Field is an actress who always seems over-eager, I was relieved that she acts with restraint in Lincoln, providing the domestic side-story needed to balance the historical account.

And so I sat through Lincoln willingly, despite my uneasiness about all the Spielbergian touches at its beginning — the gruesome images of ferocious battle, noble black soldiers asking for justice as the president pauses to speak to them, and young white recruits helping each other recite, for heaven’s sake, the Gettysburg Address!  (According to many scholars, that great statement did not become sacred text until after Lincoln died.)

But I stuck with Producer and Director Steven Spielberg, and I was rewarded with an engrossing version of a Lincoln at once idealistic and fully engaged in the messiness of getting significant legislation passed by a recalcitrant Congress. Sound familiar?

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Mary Burgan was the first contributor to Borderstan and writes movie reviews as the Borderstan Movie Fan. She moved to the area in the 1990s to become an association executive after a career as an professor of English Literature. On Sundays you can find her singing in the choir at Saint Augustine Catholic Church on 15th Street NW. Contact her at mary@borderstan.com.

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