At the end of Lincoln at the Amherst Theater the day after Thanksgiving, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. Whether it was the product of a festive weekend or an extraordinary film doesn’t really matter, because both were true.
Lincoln the man was emphasized in this film, as well as the several reasons that legislators wanted the 13th Amendment passed– not just as an expedient way to end the war. For Lincoln, it was an opportunity to right a wrong, and it would be the precedent for how the country related to itself and to the rest of the world.
Stephen Spielberg’s direction is both savvy and subtle. Because of it and because of her own talent, Sally Field is convincing as Mary Lincoln, who had lost one child already and dreaded having another son sign up to serve in the army. She listens to Lincoln’s dreams before battles and analyzes them, and she unabashedly advises him on matters of state. They are often shown in intimate silence in what now would be the Lincoln bedroom, where he, not her maid, helps her undo her laced-up corset.
When he is summoned from a meeting in the very last minutes of the film and comments that he and Mary have to go pick up another couple, the audience knows immediately that he is on his way to the theatre. He comments that he would rather stay, but it is time to go, and we see his top-hatted figure from the back as he wends his way down a corridor and then sharply turns to walk out of the picture. More scenes follow but they are more poignant for the warning.
As a leader, Lincoln is explored in depth and in detail. We see him refuse to sign an order for executing a sixteen-year-old deserter who had maimed his horse so he wouldn’t have to serve. He says to his officers, “What good would it do?” And he goes on to say, “If we did that to everyone who deserved it, there would be no sixteen-year-old boys.”
After the Appomatox Courthouse surrender scene, he remarks that if the leaders of the other side want to leave the country while his back is turned, he will just not notice. So it becomes clear that the 13th Amendment is part of his overall view, the reason he is not above arm-twisting to come up with the votes.
Historical accuracy was on Spielberg’s to-do list. There must have been cold nights in the White House in 1865, because Lincoln and his cohorts sometimes had blankets wrapped around them as they worked, and fireplaces blazed in the background. The technology of the day was highlighted, with cables carrying messages from the field to Lincoln’s offices.
This film is a must, not just for the historical importance of its story, but also for a glimpse of Washington politics as it was and is. It’s two and a half hours long, but they fly.
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