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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lincoln: It Reminded me of E.T.

***SpoilerAlert*** This post reveals key elements of a movie most everybody has seen and the outcome of historical events many never learned.

I had the rare treat of watching a movie tonight. I saw Mr. Spielberg’s most recent masterwork, Lincoln. I realize the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and the Academy Awards have already registered their judgment. I understand stars have already been awarded and opposable thumbs extended. However, I am compelled to comment in this film, even at the expense of that which is most precious to me, sleep.

I was nervous about this movie. One, I've seen Lincoln shot too many times. It is cliché, but seemingly essential to his story. Second, this movie is based, in part, on Doris Kearns Goodwin's nuanced Team of Rivals biography. I enjoyed her book because it was less a staid tribute to Honest Abe, and more an examination of power and influence. The question of "ends versus means" haunts every chapter. Nuance is not what Hollywood, or Washington D.C., does these days.

The filmmakers managed to capture the essence of Goodwin's nuance by narrowing their scope. The narrative of the movie isn't Lincoln's life, or even his presidency, or the Civil War. The narrative is the attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The proposed amendment would ban slavery in the entire nation, forever.

The film manages to generate drama and suspense, even though the outcome of events is known. This is achieved through simplicity. The drama centers around what nefarious means the various characters are willing to use to bring to pass their noble ends. The subplots and minor characters all serve the main narrative, driving it forward.

This film does what great films always do, make one a witness. A witness, not a spectator, not a patron, but a witness, as though by suspending reality one becomes part of the film's reality. Lincoln leaves one feeling as though they are a witness to history. This film is not a documentary. The film takes certain historical liberties, and has at least one major inaccuracy[1].  There are several scenes with Abraham and Mary Lincoln fighting and struggling with angst and grief at the loss of their son and the way each other handles their mourning. These scenes are not strictly historical, but indelibly real. I hear every father in Lincoln’s voice when he defends his stoicism in the face of his son’s death, by his disquieting-angry reply to his wife’s reproach that he was trying to protect young Tad, and she was too lost in grief to see Tad was also on the edge of death.

While all the elements of this movie are done with impeccable craftsmanship, this film rises from good to great because of the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis has enough awards he does not need to hear from me, but his Lincoln was so human. He was not the audio-animatronic Lincoln, but a human Lincoln, haggard, sincere, constantly hunched over feeling the weight of the world, and incredibly vulnerable, constantly bundled in a blanket as if trying to keep the war from stealing his soul. This is done without diminishing the majesty of the Great Emancipator. Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones manage to share the screen with Day-Lewis without getting overshadowed by Lincoln, but also without upstaging him. Even the bit players are perfect in their roles.

After the narrow victory of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the triumph of Lincoln, the film plays out with an epilogue. The Civil War ends, the Southern soldiers are given their dignity. I braced for the scene at Ford’s Theater, but it never came. Instead, we see the Greek tragic hero prepare for the play, and see him walk down the long hall towards the White House exit. Then we see young Tad, at a different theater as the whole theater gets the news that the President has been shot. That scene, unexpected, is more emotional than yet another view over the shoulder of the assassin. We see the dead and fallen Lincoln, relatively free from gore. But, quickly the scene changes, as in a flashback, to Lincoln’s great second inaugural address. The filmmakers bravely leave us with the living Lincoln.

Film is an escape. The moving pictures have strange and powerful effects on us humans, they always have, as Socrates can attest. Great film, like other great art, moves human passions. Lincoln reminds us of the original sin of our great country, while still showing this to be a great country. The film shows the ugly, and perhaps unscrupulous, lengths the most scrupulous of men committed to in order to bring an end to slavery. Lincoln suggests the Civil War was atonement for slavery, while suggesting that the iniquity has not been entirely expiated. This is all done without being preachy.

Lincoln is why I love movies. The first movie I remember seeing in a theater, as opposed to a drive-in, was E.T. I was five years old when I saw it with my parents. It scared the crap out of me, it made me cry, it made me want to have a flying bicycle, but mostly it made me feel. I remember leaving the theater feeling something I had no words for. It was like excitement, but not as unruly. It was like happiness, but not anchored to anything specific. It was like getting a present that was just what I wanted, even though before I tore off the wrapping paper I had never seen anything like it. That is how I felt after seeing Lincoln. I don’t feel that way often, but the hope of feeling that way is why I yearn to go to movies. I still don't have a word for that feeling, instead the best I can do is say, and “it reminds me of E.T.”.

[1] The movie portrays the majority of Connecticut’s representatives as voting down theThirteenth amendment. This is grossly inaccurate. See link here.

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