Lincoln (2012): Some Alternative Views

What more can I say that has not been said about this movie? I don’t want to repeat that it’s a strong contender for the Oscar race, or that Daniel Day-Lewis will likely taste his third Best Actor win as Lincoln, or that Tommy Lee Jones should get a nom in Best Supporting Actor for his role as Thaddeus Stevens, or Tony Kushner’s fine dialogues and captivating screenplay…

Here are some other thoughts that came to me as I watched the film, and later brewed in my mind.

The Rembrandt impression. Watching the film is like seeing Rembrandt’s paintings come to life… especially all the indoor scenes with men gathering, in black, blue, and brown overtone throughout. Yes, the diffusing light from the windows may suggest Vermeer, but the predominantly men in most scenes dressed in black remind me more of Rembrandt. Like this one:

I can’t say much about the Dutch Masters in the above painting, they look pretty tame. But in the film Lincoln, the scenes wherein men congregate to discuss national affairs show the fierce power brokering and politicking of the time. We all know it was men who conferenced, talked about serious issues, made and won decisions, with whatever means avail to them, insults, intimidations, bickering, and persistent lobbying just to name a few.

And the women… The limited screen time Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln gets in the film could well indicate their position. Heaven forbid they get suffrage, and a voice. Truly, what can a wife do behind, in Mary’s own words, the most loved and powerful man in the country? How far we’ve come… but, does suffrage guarantee voices being heard? Just wondering.

As Mary Todd Lincoln, Field could well get an Oscar nom for her supporting role. She has done a fine job portraying the private grief behind the public face. Her son Willie died of high fever the night they had to entertain guests in a reception three years ago. A poignant scene occurs when the Lincolns as husband and wife quarrel over their past loss and now the possibility of losing another as their eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) determines to enlist in the army, against his parents’ wish, or, is it only his mother’s?

From the photos above, we can tell how the casting, make-up and costume bring out the historic Mary Todd Lincoln. I remember Sally Field on Jay Leno said that she had to gain 25 pounds in 6 months to play the role, and later had to shed them all.

As an outsider, i.e., a non-American, I can’t say much about the accuracy of the content. I’m most interested to know which are Lincoln’s own words and in what context, and which are the scriptwriter’s. Even the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis himself had reportedly turned down the role at first as he felt he knew too little about the 16th U.S. President to portray him. As an outsider, I find it intriguing how an immensely influential historical figure is interpreted and portrayed. And apparently, there’s more than one angle.

Some time ago I watched PBS’s Looking For Lincoln, a documentary presented and written by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It brings out a very different Lincoln, a complex, morally conflicting figure who had not initially tied the notions of freedom for the slaves with equality of the races. Gates went through extensive archival documents, Lincoln’s own notebooks, writings and debates, and interviews with scholars and academics to discover a Lincoln who had to lay aside prejudicial views and take on gradual personal changes as the Civil War bled on.

Interestingly, Gates interviews Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer whose book Team of Rivals was what Spielberg based his film in parts on. It has been noted that even before she wrote it Spielberg was willing to secure the film rights. In Gates’ documentary, Goodwin admits that there is a need to demythologize the man Lincoln. While generations revere his greatness, he is very much human with strengths and weaknesses.

Spielberg’s interpretation is the popular frame and presents a singularly, saintly and benevolent emancipator instead of a complex and pragmatic politician, a 19th century white man who was very much a product of his times.

No matter, whatever angle Spielberg has chosen to interpret and present Lincoln, he has done it convincingly. Credits are due to Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb performance. He has salvaged any shortfalls with great charisma.

However, I do feel there are two weak sections in the film… the opening and later at the end. Seems like Spielberg is trying a tad bit too hard right at the start, for the opening scene sounds contrived as four young Union soldiers, two from each race, stand in awe in front of Lincoln in an army camp and recite back to him the Gettysburg Address.

The other is the assassination. With the whole movie resting on careful detailing of the passage of the 13th Amendment, I was surprised to find Spielberg’s treatment of Lincoln’s assassination in such a hasty manner, albeit the young son Tad’s reaction is moving. This is a scene that deserves much greater intensity and depth, not only for dramatic effects but for the balance of the whole story and expectation from the audience. Now this is the director who gave us the chilling sequences of Jaws, building the suspense of impending danger through the thumping of music and the ironic oblivion of the crowds.

Nevertheless, the second Inaugural Address ends the film on a poignant note. With malice toward none, with charity for all… Spielberg leaves us with Day-Lewis’s charismatic persona of Lincoln exhorting the crowd. With that, he has crafted another epic which will long be remembered, but in the short term, a sure contender come Oscars 2013.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


CLICK HERE to watch PBS’s ‘Looking For Lincoln’. It is presented in titled segments. You can click on any of them to watch. But I highly recommend that you go through the whole documentary, just for some alternative views.

PHOTO SOURCES: Mary Todd Lincoln and Sally Field from Vanity Fair. Others are stills from movie trailer. 

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

31 thoughts on “Lincoln (2012): Some Alternative Views”

    1. amandalovesmovies,

      Welcome! You’ve a point there… the film being about the life and not the death of Lincoln. Also, thanks for sharing the link to your review. Hope to see you stop by the pond again.


  1. As always, you write beautifully and thoroughly in all your posts, and your photos always add to the educational experience (i.e., Mary Todd and Sally Fields’ photo side by side). Were you by any chance a teacher/professor in your life? You have a firm grasp on research and truth.


    1. Hedda,

      LOL! You’re just too kind. Yes, at certain points in my life I’d been a kind of a teacher, researcher, planner… Professor? That had once been an aspiration.


    1. Kathy,

      I think it appeals more to Americans, since Lincoln is their national hero through history. I think any shortfall is compensated by the superb performance of the talented cast. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.


    2. Exactly what my husband felt … he dozed off for half an hour but I was rivetted from beginning to end (in a way that I wasn’t quite so in Zero Dark Thirty which did for me drag in the middle.)


    1. Diane,

      Bumper crop of movies, and I’m just excited about them. Life of Pi 3D is wonderful. Make sure you see 3D. My review coming up. Skyfall probably is one of the best Bond film. Others I’m waiting for is Anna K. and Les Miz, plus a couple others.


  2. I don’t get to see all that many movies, but I’m interested in this one for some reason. I haven’t seen all that much about it here in Australia, and I’m not sure when it starts. I’ll probably get to see it on DVD.


  3. As always, I appreciate your thoughts on a movie. The cast list does seem to be full of men and featuring few women, which is, as you wrote, the way politics and government used to be.

    I haven’t seen “Lincoln” yet, but I definitely will see it as a history enthusiast a political junkie and a big fan of Daniel Day-Lewis and many of the other actors in the film. I was born just across the river from Washington, D.C., in Alexandria, Virginia, so this movie is about my old neighborhood — sort of…

    I’ve read “Team of Rivals” and just read “Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Both books are good, the latter being a very easy read with some interesting facts I hadn’t read before, such as John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassin) and Robert Lincoln were both smitten with the same woman.

    I recently visited Exeter, New Hampshire, where Robert Lincoln went to school at the Phillips Exeter Academy. It’s sad that only one of Lincoln’s four sons lived to adulthood, and there are no descendants of Abraham Lincoln living today.

    I wrote this post about Abraham Lincoln four years ago.


    1. Cathy,

      Thanks for your sharing and the tidbits. It’s sad really that Lincoln didn’t have any adult sons and that he was left with no descendants. I’m all intrigued after watching PBS’s doc “Looking for Lincoln”, which presents a very different, even racist, Lincoln, who did not subscribe to the equality of the races. In particular it presented evidences that show Lincoln’s proposal of deporting the slaves to colonize Liberia after freeing them. Do click on the link and watch it. I’d love to hear ‘insiders’ opinion of the doc.


      1. Robert did survive to adulthood out of the four Lincoln sons, and he had children, but those children didn’t reproduce. I will check out the link on the documentary.

        Strangely, Robert was with two other American presidents when they were shot — Garfield and McKinley. Both died from their wounds. Robert had turned down an invitation to be with his parents at Ford’s Theater the night his father was shot.


  4. The movie has been getting lots of good buzz. I’ll see it eventually when it comes out on DVD. Do you think it does much to de-mythologize Lincoln or does it only add to the myth? In the States he looms large and is probably one of the most written about presidents.


    1. Stefanie,

      I think Spielberg has sustained the myth by presenting him as a heroic, all benevolent emancipator. Some say he is portrayed as a man in the film, with humor and all, but I feel the film has painted him a saintly, noble man, lofty in his ideals, selfless, yes, even his humor points to his good nature, seldom gets angry.

      If you want to see a view that demythologizes, do click on the link to the PBS doc. “Looking for Lincoln” at the end of my post. You can pick the topics if you don’t have time to watch it all.


  5. Arti, this is definitely on my list (the list gets so long in these months before the end of the year!) I do think Goodwin is a solid researcher and while I didn’t read “Rivals” I know it got lots of praise. As has this film. I really appreciate your observations — you do indeed bring out points I hadn’t read. The photo of Field/Mary was amazing and I really loved the juxtaposition of the painting and the congress. Very thoughtful. As always!


  6. I don’t know if I’ll see the movie Lincoln or not because I am afraid that it is based on too many erroneous factors. When we moved here, 3 miles from a large National Civil War Battlefield Park I read a number of books (a dozen or so in different languages) on Lincoln. I did not read the Bill O’Reilly book though which is full of factual errors (1200 people gave it 1 star in Amazon!) I was brought up in France and was not indoctrinated in believing Lincoln was some type of benevolent hero so I think my mind was pretty much neutral about him. I was surprised there were so many falsehoods propagated about him. I tend to be skeptic of the myths I hear in this country about politicians. Napoleon III of France for example offered to mediate between the North and South to help avoid war and Lincoln categorically refused (reminded me of Bush and the Iraq war.) He also illegally suspended habeas corpus and had racist views. There is quite a list of unlawful acts that Lincoln did and that nowadays people ignore because they rather believe the feel-good myths.

    For example he said in his first inaugural address in 1861 “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” But when he saw that France was going to help the South he changed his words.

    I tend not to believe in myths and that is why I just found out about a myth perpetuated by the US National Park Service in my town and which is totally untrue. I wrote my last post about it. Even if the acting is top notch and the directing is super, if there are many lies I don’t think it helps the public to see a movie like this. Children don’t get good education here anymore and they may believe what they see at the movies. I remember a Disney movie about Pocahontas years ago that children loved but was also made up of myths. If Lincoln could have spared the lives of those 750,000 men (new estimates) and did not, that is more than horrible. I always read both sides, and found too many instances that showed Lincoln’s war was unnecessary. It does not sound like this movie helped bring out the truth – a good opportunity missed. (I’ll watch the PBS link, thanks.)


  7. Haven’t seen it yet, but I appreciate your likening the lighting and imagery to Rembrandt — I can just imagine it. While I was waiting for my car to be serviced, I heard an interview with Sally Field and how she fought to get the role.


  8. I appreciate Vagabond’ comments, but another truth is that, when it comes to historical figures, there is no single “truth”. Factual errors are one thing, but the facts are seen differently by different people, and quite different images can emerge. As I mentioned to someone recently, the “real” story of what happened at Thanksgiving when Grandma whacked Uncle Budge with the turkey leg will differ considerably, depending on which brother or sister tells the tale.

    Another interesting aspect of the story is the different ways Lincoln is perceived by children of the Union and Confederacy. It would make an wonderful project to analyze reviews coming out of the North and those written in the South. Certainly there were divided views on the man in both areas of the country, but I suspect there will be some diffence in reception. That’s only a hypothesis, but it would be fun to follow up.

    I was interested in Sally Field gaining and losing those twenty five pounds. I’ve gained mine. Perhaps I should drop her a line to see how she got rid of them. The side-by-side photos are amazing. I recently compared photos of Judi Dench in “Mrs. Brown” with Queen Victoria herself, and was just amazed at the similarities. I think she must have put on a few pounds herself.

    A friend and I are planning to see “Lincoln” the first rainy day that comes along. Despite Lincoln’s faults, I think he is our most accessible “historical” president, and some of his words are among the most inspiring in our country’s history. Here’s my all-time favorite rendition of the Gettysburg Address.


    1. Linda,

      I’d really love to hear responses to the PBS doc. I’ve linked at the bottom of the post, esp. from an American, since we’re talking about alternative points of view. When you have time, do go there and let me know what you think.

      Sally Field said that she gained 25 lbs. in 6 months and lost them in a year. Well, even that, I don’t mind if it takes a year… imagine, losing 25 lbs. Anyway, your comment just reminded me to put in the source for those photos. I got them from Vanity Fair, but when you go on Google images, you can find them everywhere.

      Enjoy your shows… several good ones out now or coming soon.


    1. Cathy,

      That’s exactly the link I have at the end of my post. Hope you’ll find time to watch it. Do let me know what you think of it. I await your response.


  9. I’m just back from seeing “Lincoln”, and was vastly entertained. I didn’t read your review again before going, or any reviews for that matter, and I was most surprised to find Sally Field in the credits. I’d forgotten she played Mary Todd Lincoln, and I was so absorbed in her character from the beginning I’m not sure I could have “found” Sally Fields there even if told she was playing Mary.

    I didn’t think Lincoln came across as saintly at all. In fact, he seemed far more human in this film than I’d considered him before. His anger was apparent, though not explosive, and his willingness to use his lawyer’s training to walk the thin edge of the law was apparent. He was portrayed as driven, willing to connive and more than willing to utilize his quick mind and wit to outwit (or out-obfuscate) opponents.

    From my perspective, his self-containment helped to pull the film together. While Mary was demonstrative in her grief, Lincoln was contained. While the marvelously raw and emminently corruptable politicians beat each other up, Lincoln quietly used the system – and others – to gain his advantage.

    As for the ending, I thought it was perfect. His death needed to be there, I think, but in a sense it didn’t have anything to do with the film’s subject. The real star of the movie was the 13th Amendment, even though it was called “Lincoln” and focused on him as a man. It wasn’t a bio pic, though – it’s just that no one ever would go see a movie called “The 13th Amendment”!

    And I didn’t think it was too long at all. The only scene I felt was “off” somehow was Lincoln’s passing through the battlefield on his way to meet Lee. There was something about the filming that didn’t feel as natural to me. It wasn’t a story problem, it was a technical problem, but I don’t know enough about how it would have been done to even describe it to you. Maybe they were trying to make the scene feel “dream-like” or even nightmarish, and it just didn’t work.

    Anyway – I liked it very much.


    1. Linda,

      I’m so glad to hear you’ve enjoyed Lincoln. I haven’t seen you so excited about a film … well, maybe except Marigold Hotel. I think you’re right in your analysis, it’s not about the death of Lincoln, but the passing of the 13th Amendment that the climax presents. As for the movie, it’s poised to get many Oscar noms (now you know what this word means 😉 ). And, if you ask my prediction, I think it has a very good chance to win Best Picture. Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor is the most certain, IMHO. I’m sure by Oscars time, you’ll be geared up… keep on watching… there are still a few that are note-worthy.


  10. Finally it made it to Australia. I didn’t read your review before either … nor any others. I loved your reference to Rembrandt. Nice catch.

    I’ve always been interested in Lincoln, even though I’m an Aussie. I think it started with my interest in the civil rights movement in the 1960s – I know it was 100 years after him but you can’t help thinking about him in the context. I then studied him at university and wrote an essay on him. But, I haven’t read any recent biographies.

    I think Spielberg did put a positive spin on him from my understanding of Lincoln – my husband and I had a good talk about idealism and pragmatism on the way home – but he did provide some balance to that in showing the nether side of his politics to get the act through. Just as well he did that because otherwise the film would have lost credibility. I think Spielberg was able to sidestep going further into the murkier more complicated aspects of Lincoln’s beliefs by starting the movie’s chronology in January 1865, thereby starting at the point that Lincoln was committed to the anti-slavery cause (for whatever reason). I thought that was an excellent decision – though as the movie started I was surprised. Starting in January 1865 and it’s going to be 153 minutes long? How can that be sustained I wondered!

    It’s a great film to discuss regarding idealism and what you have to do to achieve ideals. Do the ends justify the means. The drama around Thaddeus Stevens was well done – his decision to go for what would get the result rather than go the full hog really underpinned the compromises that have to be made in politics. Baby steps.

    I liked the fact that they slipped in the issue about what happens next …

    My husband would agree with you about the end, but I felt it was valid not to focus on the death, not to draw too much attention to it and thereby perhaps take away the import of his achievement.

    I loved Daniel Day Lewis … and Sally Field (always a favourite of mine) and Tommy Lee Jones.

    Sorry for the ramble!


    1. WG,

      Thanks for your thorough sharing of thoughts. You’re right, and you’ve answered my query… Since Spielsberg focuses on “… January 1865, thereby starting at the point that Lincoln was committed to the anti-slavery cause (for whatever reason).” Right on, the man could have held racist views, as presented by the PBS doc, by that time he had changed, “for whatever reason.” I hope if you have time, click on the link at the end of my post to that doc “Looking for Lincoln”. I’d love to know your view on that.

      And LOL! Your husband had a good nap. You know, that’s not the first time I heard of such a ‘soothing’ effect of the movie. At this point in the Awards Season, seems like Argo is the front-runner… surprisingly.

      Thanks for your insights on this film. I’ve always enjoyed reading your views on films.


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