The Civil War: “Lincoln,” the movie, lives up to the hype

“Lincoln” is not entertaining, but it is an outstanding and memorable film. Photo: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in the White House AP

VIENNA, Va ., November 18, 2012 — When a movie like “Lincoln” finally opens, after one-day pre-screenings in “selected cities,” limited press showings and then the actual opening, it is tempting to write a typical glowing review for this “film of the century” and deem all leads as potential Oscar winners.

“Lincoln” is an outstanding, memorable film, but it is not entertaining. It is deep, dark, and morose in places, teeming with bombastic displays of pomposity by the elected officials who led the country, primarily against the president, with whom they were in conflict over passage of the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery.

For those fascinated with the weird machinations of Congress in the 1860s, it is a rare look into that turbulent age when the Civil War was winding down, but with a conclusion with which no one was in 100% agreement.

Yet, in essence, it is a great film given the parameters of the age and the participants. Daniel Day-Lewis looks and acts every bit the part of Lincoln from daylight to dusk. Only in very close close-ups does his younger age peek through. Otherwise his temperament and disposition, flares of temper and traces of tenderness, with his young son Tad are just what we’d expect of the 16th President. 

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln AP

When Sally Field begged to be tested for the part of Mary Todd Lincoln, she was correct in her assessment that she “WAS Mary Lincoln.” She is every bit the loving, sarcastic, tender yet probably bi-polar First Lady of whom we have heard so much.

Her movements, her facial expressions, her appearance in the beautiful clothing done by her dressmaker and confidante Elizabeth Keckley (actress Gloria Reuben seems joined at the hip with Sally Field) all make hers an outstanding performance.

In two scenes, Mary wears the beautiful pearl jewelry replicas seen at the Library of Congress and conservationist Michelle Krowl appears in the credits as well.

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican Representative, is by turns truculent, tempestuous and hard to like, true to the character. Stevens was the one who masterminded the machinations to wrangle other representatives into voting for the 13th Amendment, and he didn’t care how the “negotiations” are done. He sent others to do his bidding, and he rode hard those who fail.

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens AP

Young Gulliver McGrath as 12-year-old Tad is precocious and precious, whether pretending to smoke a pipe in his mini-uniform, or directing his pony cart right down the center hall of the White House, he’s a purely delightful young man.

His older brother, Robert, is adroitly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who enlisted against the wishes of his grieving mother and his less than effusive father.

Lincoln’s interaction with several of the political characters is interesting to watch, making one wonder if he really did tell tales and jokes constantly, which almost seem disjunctive to his presidential position.

Fighting constantly with Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), founder of the new Republican Party, and William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln was convinced that the passage of the 13th Amendment should be done immediately, whether or not it ended the fighting.

He pulled every string to accomplish it, literally allowing votes to be bought if need be and strong-arming men who withhold their change of votes.

Lincoln observes one of the Civil War’s sieges AP

A high point in the emotional side of the movie shows Lincoln visiting a hospital of wounded soldiers, speaking to each and asking his name, while son Robert outside followed a handcart being pushed by two laborers, and noticed a bloody trail behind it.

At the end of its path, he saw piles of amputated arms and legs tossed into a pit, already full of the detritus of war, providing the mental impetus for his enlistment.

Lincoln’s mental state is devastating to watch as he competed with everyone, on his side or the opposition, to get the 13th Amendment passed immediately.

As he says in the movie, “The fate of human dignity is in our hands. Blood’s been spilt to award us this moment, now, now, now!”  Lincoln was driven: he also knew he must get the amendment passed to assure his re-election.

Negotiation meetings were held on the old riverboat, the River Queen, as the Republicans pushed for passage of the amendment and the Democrats held off for fear of losing their way of life and their “traditions will be obliterated.”

Very little actual discussion is heard of the excesses of slavery though it is understood to be at the heart of the discussion, but the movie does not run the theme into the ground. 

The amendment did pass in a wild Congressional vote, as people changed sides and the abstentions were held to only nine. In the balcony watching the proceedings were “Negroes,” who shared in the joy of the passage, and former slave, Elizabeth Keckley, who as usual accompanied Mary Todd. Lincoln is then shown at his second inauguration and part of his address is quoted.

At the end, the camera goes to the home of Thaddeus Stevens, as his housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson) welcomed him back after the vote, saying it would not have been proper for her to have been there. Smith had been Stevens’ biracial housekeeper for many years and his hostess for social occasions. The next scene switches to Stevens as he takes off his wig and retires, Lydia Smith already in bed, awaiting him. And so it goes….

General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant is well portrayed, including how both men saluted and Lee rode off with his company.

“Lincoln” is an exceptional movie with exceptional acting, and a history lesson for everyone of all races. Let’s cross our fingers for a bunch of Oscars.

A footnote: Totally in context, the word “nigger” is used seven times, and the sun still will rise tomorrow.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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