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.