For five years the actor cast for the role of Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s movie of the same name, ate, slept, and breathed everything Abraham Lincoln-that journey for the actor began in 2005. In 2010, that actor- Liam Neeson, bowed out. Daniel Day-Lewis was cast for the role in his place. This, of course, is not unheard of when it comes to movie roles- and the stars who eventually played the parts (and the stars who might have played the parts). We all know the story of actor Buddy Ebsen who was originally cast as the scarecrow in MGM’s Wizard of Oz. Ebsen wound up switching his role of the scarecrow with Roy Bolger, who was cast as the Tin Man. During the filming of the movie, Ebsen had to leave the project for health reasons. Actor Jack Haley replaced Ebsen as the Tin Man. Haley finished the role making, some would argue, his career- defining work. Mr. Neeson is a fine actor with much to acclaim his work. His role as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List alone- places him among the greats. Considering amazing performance that Day-Lewis gives as President Lincoln, there doesn’t seem to be much room for wondering how Neeson would have done with the role. It just isn’t necessary to speculate.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is the “Lincoln” that the world needs to see. The actor portrays Lincoln not as an unapproachable unemotional icon, a person without faults ,or a saint. Instead, we get a Lincoln that is patient (but his patience has limits), ethical (but is willing to break rules when for the greater good), and expressive (displaying many emotions to various circumstances). In another words, he is human. We see Lincoln-not the immortal statue-like figure of monuments and secular temples-but a real living, walking, breathing man. Its fun to watch Day-Lewis interpret Lincoln-how Lincoln might have stood against a fireplace or read a newspaper. We see Lewis as Lincoln reacting to Mary Todd-sometimes showing anger-sometimes consoling her. It seems so real. We see Lewis as Lincoln the father. His relationship with young Tad is warm. Tad is shown getting a piggy-back ride on the back of Lincoln. We see Lincoln’s complicated relationship with his oldest son Robert. There is implied an emotional distance between the two, but Lincoln clearly loves his son, and wants the best for him.
Most of all, we see Lewis portray Lincoln as master politician. His Lincoln listens to all opinions. Indeed, he goes into dank cellars and kitchens to gather information from others. He listens and thinks things over. All the while, he has a goal deep inside him-to end slavery. Here’s especially where the “master politician” comes into play-he will get the 13th Amendment (ending slavery) passed. He sends out his “operatives” to get the votes that will be needed. He will make personal visits to secure the “yes” votes. He engages in certain “risky behaviors” to get the job done-but the job does get done. It gets done despite opposition from all sides, even within his own party- by some. Lincoln is determined-and nothing or no one will stop him. He will tell his jokes and annoy his listeners. He will seem to be making wrong choices as seen through the eyes of his closest advisors. The war, itself, seems to cry out to him: “Make peace, Mr. Lincoln!” But Lincoln knows he cannot make peace if it is conditioned on the continuation of slavery. He remains resolute-and the fate of the nation rests on him.
Day-Lewis as Lincoln meeting with Grant near the end of the war-Grant makes a comment to Lincoln about how he has aged in the year that has transpired. And Lincoln had aged. He had lost more than 25 pounds since he had become president. Lewis as Lincoln portrays a man wearing out and graying-rapidly. He appears so thin. He stoops sometimes when he walks. He looks physically tired.
Yet, with grace, charm, and wit- Lewis’s Lincoln carries out this task as president. He has had his dream-the one that most think portended his death. Still, he talks of plans for life after his second term of office as president. Maybe he will go back to Springfield-he talks of visiting the Holy Land. But we know the end of the story. Lincoln is murdered. Spielberg, wisely, I think, does not devote time to the actual assassination. We are with Tad in Grover’s Theater when the news that the president is shot is abruptly announced to the theater-goers. Our hearts break with Tad’s. We emotionally connect with the horror of it. We see Lincoln on his death-bed. There is blood on his pillow. Lincoln is too big for the bed they laid him on. He looks shriveled. What a moment… As the movie ends, Spielberg shows Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Speech-it’s a fitting and classy ending. I think he didn’t want the viewer’s last image of the film to be of a lifeless Lincoln. I was reminded that the same thinking came into play in regards to Elvis Presley’s first movie Love Me Tender. In the film, Elvis played a role whose character dies in the end. Rather than leaving the fans with an image of a dead Elvis-even Elvis playing the role of someone else in movie, the end-credits feature Elvis well and singing-kind of ghostlike-but alive. So Lincoln the movie leaves one with the knowledge that Lincoln the president accomplished his goals-to end the war and to end slavery-and the unspoken part is that we alive today are the benefactors of his accomplishments. Lincoln is not dead because his work continues live on.
Needless, to say, the sets in the movie are phenomenal. The clothing and costumes are meticulous. The opening of the movie, which features a very gruesome and realistic battle- scene, leaves one with a true sense of the chaos of hand-to-hand fighting. That scene-of death- is really always behind the events of what the rest of the movie is about. With all the politicking that is occurring by men in well-dressed clothing doing their work in stately buildings-other men by the thousands are dying-and slavery is continuing. African-Americans are shown in the movie in various roles-as Union soldiers-as slaves, as servants. They are not left out of the story by any means. How ironic the scene where the 13th Amendment is being debated and voted on by the white politicians (many of them against its passage)-while African-Americans look on their deliberations! How relieved we in the audience felt when it passed- as the pro-13th Amendment- backers sang with joy the Battle Cry of Freedom. Imagine what they felt.
As with every film, there were some minor “goofs.” Mention was made in the movie of a coin with Lincoln’s image on it-there was no such coin at the time. The first coin featuring Lincoln was the cent minted in 1909. Another small note, General Grant appeared “too clean” at Appomattox-his boots and uniform at the time were soiled from field wear. He also should have been wearing a private’s frock coat-which he wasn’t. There were other instances of such things-a few times we hear characters refer to the “White House.” That term wasn’t in existence as that point. The “White House” was then called the “Executive Mansion.” In another scene, a Union soldier tells Lincoln he heard him give the Gettysburg Address two years before. However, the scene is set in either December 1864 or January 1865. Correctly speaking, the soldier should have stated he heard the Address a year ago. Maybe he was nervous?
Steven Spielberg is said to have spent 12 years doing the research for the movie. It shows. The film is a masterpiece. Despite a few “goofs”-and I think them to be minor-everything about it displays a passion for the subject matter and the subject Lincoln. It is interesting to note, that the actual filming was done in Virginia-in Petersburg, Fredericksburg, and Richmond. President Lincoln had personally visited some of those very locations. But even more for realism is this note- the sound of Lincoln’s watch in the movie-is the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s real watch-the watch he had on the day he was assassinated.
A final comment concerns the movie showing the white and African-American Union soldiers meeting with Lincoln. I felt it was contrived and probably not realistic. I’ve been thinking about Spielberg’s intention for this scene. The scene happens at the beginning of the film but not the very beginning. First there is that horrific battle scene. Maybe Spielberg is saying that the carnage just displayed in that scene made it possible for the next scene to occur-without the war there would have not have been such a sight. Additionally, Spielberg wants the viewer to know that Lincoln-who is literally seated between the two groups-was the reason that such a meeting could take place-whites and African-Americans both wearing the same uniform-fighting on the same side-and to go further-the president was such that he would meet with the “common” soldier no matter who it was. As I’ve mentioned, he valued everyone’s opinions. Also, there is the matter of the soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address-perhaps to convey to the viewer that the notions expressed in it were a unifying point for the soldiers-no matter who they were-whether it was to declare again that “all men were created equal” or to understand that the war was worth fighting for because it was a test to see if democracy would survive-and that there was a “new birth of freedom” in the land.
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