I love Daniel Day-Lewis. Love him — Method madness and all. He deserved all of his four Oscar nominations so far, at least one of his two wins so far (for 1989’s My Left Foot) and probably should have been nominated at least four other times (for My Beautiful Laundrette, A Room with a View, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Age of Innocence).
For his latest Oscar bid, Day-Lewis resurrects the troubled, contemplative soul that was the 16th U.S. President, while also bringing forth the light, mischievous side we don’t read about in textbooks or see on the penny or $5 bill. Is it fourth-Oscar worthy? Throughout the movie, I kept thinking of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, which won Peck his only Oscar, so I guess the answer would be yes. Still, while watching Lincoln the movie, I kept wishing Lincoln the man would spend more time with his family (as I’m sure Mary Todd Lincoln and their youngest son Tad did) and less at work with members of his cabinet and his professional inner circle.
Maybe it’s just that as a life-long student of U.S. Presidential history, and because I’ve recently watched two long documentaries on the Civil War era — one on Lincoln’s assassination, another on Reconstruction — I didn’t find the off-the-battlefield fight to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified to be as engrossing as it probably should have been. I already knew most of the story, and everybody knows how it ultimately turned out.
Or perhaps I’m just that much of a sucker for family dynamics and watching them explode onscreen. Abraham Lincoln’s family life was as interesting, though in a different sort of way, as his professional one. He had a complicated relationship with his complex wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, making me wonder why she doesn’t get more big-screen leading roles these days), and I was transfixed during their scenes together, especially a bedroom blowout over their sons and their marital power struggle. It left me wishing the film had begun three years earlier than it did, with the death of their 11-year-old son William. (Then director Steven Spielberg could have worked in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.)
I’ve always felt that Abe and Molly’s personal story was shortchanged in the annals of Lincoln because it’s always been overshadowed by the extraordinary events of the time. One day I hope they get the biopic as portrait of a marriage that they deserve.
But you can’t get everything in one movie, and as is, Lincoln is elegantly staged, well-acted (the main players aside, I particularly enjoyed Lee Pace as racist Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood), and surprisingly funny at times. It also gives valuable insight into the little-known (by most) story behind what is perhaps the most pivotal Constitutional amendment — there are interesting arguments made for and against the immediate abolition of slavery and so many shades of gray between them.
Even Lincoln is presented here as being a little shady, the consummate politician, always weighing his options, careful not to swing too far left, as is the case in one telling scene in which he’s questioned by his wife’s assistant, a former slave (played by former ER star Gloria Reuben with quiet excellence), about whether he would like to see blacks integrated into white society. People forget that being anti-slavery didn’t necessarily mean you considered black and white to be equal or wanted the two to mix.
People also forget that despite Lincoln’s reputation as the savior of slaves, he was well right of fervent abolitionists like John Brown and Thaddeus Stevens. The movie sidesteps the recent dissenting historical opinion that deems him a racist, while carefully distancing him from Radical Republicanism and U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, hogging the attention of critics, and likely Oscar, when he should be sharing it with David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State William H. Seward, also known as the man who brought Alaska — aka “Seward’s Icebox” — to the U.S.). Lincoln presents Stevens in a somewhat unflattering light (ill-fitting wig and all) before his equality-in-the-eyes-of-the-law speech before the House that might have made the film more controversial if more people knew anything about the real-life Stevens and his tireless support of the black cause.
Oh yeah, the black cause. For a movie with the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln at its center, there’s not a very significant black presence in Lincoln, which is interesting, since slavery — not states’ rights, as the whitewashing would have us believe — was the crux of North vs. South during the Civil War.
But I guess we’ve got Django Unchained for that.