During my decades of teaching history I cannot begin to tell anyone, who chose to listen, the number of times that I heard the following. “I didn’t like History classes in school. It’s so dry and full of dates. It has no impact on me.”
Of course, for me, that was like an arrow piercing my heart. That’s because the study of the past was a vibrant undertaking. It enabled me to see that history does impact civilization as we know it and our personal lives as well. After seeing the new film, “Lincoln” I am more convinced than ever of my point of view on the relevance of History on our world today. Stephen Spielberg and I are of the same generation so he could not have been in my classroom. I can however imagine his History teacher being most pleased in seeing his vision on a little known yet gigantic event in our American experience come to life on the big screen.
The film deals with the debate over the adoption of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. Woven into that explosive period in our national evolvement is the personal story of Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and their young son Tad and eldest son Robert. Spielberg’s vision of life, politics and war in 19th Century America touches the heart, emboldens one’s spirit and horrifies the human senses. But it was the actors who brought that vision to life.
Daniel Day Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln brings this icon of our heritage to life in a way which this former teacher would have thought our 16th President to be and in ways which I never envisioned. (i.e. A fist pounding profanity speaking President insisting on the freeing of the slaves.} Even his stooped posture as if the weight of the world was upon his shoulders, as it certainly was after four years of civil war, presented a human struggling to bring peace and preserve the Union while attempting to address the moral and legal issue of slavery of his day. But more importantly was Lewis’ Lincoln demonstrating the iconic President’s personal side as he dealt with his wife’s instability and her continuing grief over the death of their son Willie while also trying to come to grips with his own grief, his bond of love with Tad and confrontational issues with their eldest son, Robert. Add to this his portrayal of Lincoln’s story telling skills to present his point of view and we see another side of Lincoln, one with a sense of humor while addressing profound issues. Then there are scenes when that tall lanky frame of Lincoln stands silhouetted in a dark room with sunlight streaming though a window, on the battle field amongst the dead and maimed and sitting with Tad upon his knee which invokes the image of the statue enshrined in his Memorial in Washington D.C. coming to life. That bushy and unruly head of hair and wiry beard, those chiseled facial features and of course that stove pipe top hat in which he kept his speeches which creates that image which we learned about while sitting at our desks in grammar school.
But Daniel Day Lewis does more than carry the physical appearance of Lincoln. He presents his shrewd political savvy as well as his calm resolve and melancholy somberness that most of us grew up understanding from movies with giants of Hollywood’s golden age such as Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey who took on the role of Lincoln. Now we must add to a long list of talented actors who attempted to bring this pivotal President in American History to life, that of Daniel Day Lewis. For he as no one has done before him has given us a glimpse into Lincoln’s emotions as he balances family, politics, war and his firm belief that “All men are created equal.” And for that addition to Lincoln’s persona Daniel Day Lewis deserves an Oscar Nomination.
A movie however is the sum of all its parts. The performances of those who supported this moment in American History when what we take for granted today was debated on the floor of Congress and on the battlefield strewn with bodies of those who fought to bring freedom and equality for all people, were wonderful to behold.
Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln no longer a flying nun or the matriarch of a political family gives an outstanding rendition as a grieving mother, clever politician and maneuvering wife. Her Mary Todd Lincoln brings out the reality of life in Washington City in 1865 as being one filled with political correctness for the day as well as Mrs. Lincoln’s emotional instability. The explosive scene between Mary and Lincoln over Willie’s death is a dramatic exercise in excellence.
Then there is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. His rendition of the abolitionist Congressman who must compromise in order to get the Amendment passed is compelling.
David Strathairn as Secretary of state William Seward presents an often flustered and cunning politician who must deal with a President determined to abolish slavery even at the cost of an earlier peace in the Civil War.
Then there’s Hal Holbrook, who once played Lincoln in a TV mini-series, now playing Preston Blair a patriarchal politician with enormous clout who is sent out on a secret mission to meet with Confederate representatives to bring about peace. Without his support the amendment would not have a chance to pass in the House of Representatives. He stunningly delivers that role of an elder statesman and shrewd politician.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes a rather small role as the eldest son Robert Lincoln and turns it into a magnificent confrontational series of scenes which tests the love between father and son, service to the nation and abhorrence of the horrors of war.
The young actor Gulliver McGrath is charming as Tad Lincoln the youngster who idolizes his father. We all know how Lincoln dies in Ford Theater. What we have probably never seen nor been taught is that of how Tad reacted to that event. Seeing it through the eyes of a loving son is heart breaking.
Every actor contributed his or her finest talents to bring this story to life. From Jared Harris as General Grant to Bruce McGill as Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton whose famous words at the bedside of Abraham Lincoln where the mortally wounded President took his final breadth we all learned as children; “Now he belongs to the ages.” And so too will this film enter the ranks of a classic belonging to the ages and for that it has earned an “A+” rating from this teacher turned author and screenplay writer.
(Arthur Cola is the author of the children’s Christmas tale, Papa and the Gingerbread Man and four novels: Papa and the Leprechaun King, The Shamrock Crown, The Stone Cutter Genius and The Brooch. His screenplay, “Ring of the Magi” is being developed into a film project under the leadership of Producer/director Ronald Kolman.)