I went to see the new Spielberg movie Lincoln. I’ve been an avid reader of Lincoln biographies–from where I sit right now I can see more than fifty volumes on Lincoln and I can honestly say that if I haven’t read all of them, there are some that I’ve read multiple times and will read again, including Sandburg’s six volumes–perhaps the most wonderful biography ever written–and Benj. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem which is the most charming Lincoln book of them all. I also have half again as many Lincoln volumes at home. Suffice it to say, I like Lincoln. And I’ve written about him for publication in Civil War Times. Mine is no casual affair. Lincoln and I are for keeps.
Well…Wonder of wonders. I loved–I revered–the Lincoln movie. It was the first movie my wife and I have gone to since Primary Colors. We were startled at the cost of theater tickets ($19 !) but we were thrilled by the movie. My mental picture of Lincoln, framed for ever and ever by the staged photographs of him, has been supplemented by Daniel Day Lewis’s movie portrayal of the 16th president.
I have two quibbles with the movie. The opening scene was a little much. Lincoln, for some reason unattended to and sitting in the rain, seemed a bit unrealistic and daft (the President was a gigantic celebrity in 1864 too, and his being somehow overlooked was as unlikely then as it is now). Then the post battle-scene at the end of the movie…this is presumably in the trenches around Petersburg after the Confederate line is cracked. The movie depicts corpses stacked like the concentration camp images at the end of WWII. There are actual contemporaneous photos of the most gruesome slaughters of the war, scenes from Antietam’s sunken road, indeed photos from the Petersburg field in the battle aftermath. There is nothing like what the movie shows. Maybe modern audiences have to see a carpet of bodies before they’re impressed.
But apart from those two improbable scenes, the film makers did an impeccable job. Lincoln’s office, as filmed, was exact in every detail. The more prominent members of his cabinet (Gideon Wells, Edwin Stanton e.g.) bore a striking similarity to the real men. Secretary of State William Seward was portrayed as a more presentable figure: they skipped the magpie-like features of the actual Seward but that’s understandable. Modern audiences would probably find his looks laughable.
To sum up, considering how awful the movie could have been–and considering how tempting it must have been to go the saccharine route–makes how realistic the movie was all the more commendable. It’salso a treat to see Republicans portrayed as the good guys. People forget the Democrats obstructing role as the nation was locked in a death struggle. And they also forget that the modern Civil Rights legislation was vehemently opposed by the solid South–the South was solidly Democrat in 1964 as well as in 1864–and it was the Republican party that enabled Lyndon Johnson to push his Civil Rights agenda through. Look it up!