Some of you might recognize my name from my 2004 book The Batman Filmography
published by McFarland and Company. Right now, I’m feverishly working on a second edition of that book which will be published next year. But at this particular moment I would like to share some thoughts with you about my OTHER cinematic obsession, Abraham Lincoln.
My 2008 book Abraham Lincoln on Screen was also published by McFarland and Company, and it is an examination of the over 100-year history of Lincoln-related film and television works. In order to view certain rare Lincoln-related screen productions, I traveled to many different film libraries across the country such as the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the Los Angeles Museum of Television and Radio. In the years since the book first came out, I have been given the opportunity to present programs about Lincoln screen works at historical sites and museums all over the United States.
So you can imagine just how excited I was when I learned that the legendary director Steven Spielberg was making a film based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb Lincoln biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It took a long time for Spielberg to get that movie made (especially for us rabid Lincolnphiles!), but the wait was so worth it! Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role is an extraordinary film, and it is completely unlike any Lincoln-related big screen work ever made. And believe me, when I make this assessment, I know what I am talking about—after all, there is really no one else in the world who has spent as much time watching Lincoln films as I have!
In the wake of Lincoln’s release, critics and the media will probably bring up famous Lincoln films such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) starring Henry Fonda and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) starring Raymond Massey. Those films really do not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with Lincoln—they are well-made, entertaining dramas, but they have very little to do with the real Lincoln. The plot of Lincoln is almost completely about Lincoln—it chronicles many of the events that took place in Lincoln’s life right before he was assassinated in April 1865.
Here is perhaps the most important thing that audiences know about Lincoln as they head in to see the film—the time period that the film focuses on is so narrow that it only covers a tiny sliver of Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln was president from early 1861 to early 1865, and the film only chronicles several months of those four years. Here’s a laundry list of just some of the momentous events in Lincoln’s presidency that Lincoln does not take on—Lincoln’s First Inaugural, the rebel attack on Fort Sumter, the Battle of Antietam, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s election to a second term!
So it probably is less than accurate to say that Lincoln is “based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” After all, that book covers Lincoln’s entire life and the lives of his cabinet members, and the movie covers just a bit of all of that ground. But in all fairness, it should be pointed out that Lincoln’s life and presidency was so epic and far-ranging that any movie that would try to adequately cover it all would probably have to be about 20 hours in length!
So what Lincoln does is basically narrow its focus to one particular momentous historical event. And that event is a biggie—the film chronicles Lincoln’s efforts to secure Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that permanently abolished the practice of slavery in the United States. Truthfully, Lincoln is probably too broad of a title for the film—a more accurate title would have been Lincoln and the 13th Amendment.
At any rate, the film’s depiction of Lincoln’s last months and the 13th Amendment fight is flat-out brilliant. Lincoln is so well written, directed and acted that it is bound to be considered for a slew of Academy Awards. As a lifelong admirer of Lincoln, the film did not just move me—it completely overwhelmed me, and it will be a part of me for the rest of my life. I’ve been through over a century of Lincoln-related screen works, and I feel that Lincoln is an achievement in that genre that will probably never be topped.
Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner paint a remarkably detailed and historically accurate portrait of Lincoln in the film. They capture Lincoln as the historical icon that we are all so familiar with, but they also capture Lincoln as the flesh-and-blood man who was so often hard to know. Lincoln is a principle-driven politician who has no problem being deceptive when he thinks he needs to, a loving father who cannot find a way to emotionally connect with his oldest son, and a well-meaning husband who is often estranged from his wife because their life together has been filled with such sorrow and tragedy.
Spielberg and Kushner’s interpretation of Lincoln is wonderfully well-acted by Daniel Day-Lewis—his appearance, voice and mannerisms bring Lincoln to life so effectively that he is simply a joy to watch every second he is on the screen. It’s funny, though, out of the scores of actors that have played Lincoln, Day-Lewis is not quite my personal all-time favorite. I would have to rank him a close second behind Hal Holbrook, who played the role so memorably in the 1974-76 TV miniseries Sandburg’s Lincoln. In my opinion, Holbrook looked more like Lincoln in that production than Day-Lewis, mainly because Holbrook’s makeup was so involved—he was fitted with false cheekbones, false ears, a false nose, a wig and false beard! And even more importantly, Holbrook as Lincoln spoke in a high braying voice, with a pronounced Kentucky accent. In my opinion, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln voice is a bit too refined and restrained to capture what the real Lincoln probably would have sounded like.
I should point out that even though I like Holbrook’s Lincoln portrayal a bit better than Day-Lewis’s Lincoln portrayal, Lincoln is hands-down a more historically accurate work than Sandburg’s Lincoln. Sandburg’s Lincoln tended to paint the historical events it depicted in very broad, general strokes, resulting in a number of inaccurate and misleading scenes. So to recap—I love Day-Lewis’s Lincoln portrayal in Lincoln as much as I love the film itself.
All of the film’s supporting actors are as wonderful as Day-Lewis. Sally Field delivers a compelling, sympathetic portrait of Mary Lincoln—her Mary is intelligent, witty and charming, but she is also so emotionally overwrought that she is on the verge of mental collapse. Lincoln’s list of great performances goes on and on—David Strathairn as William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens are just a few of the film’s standouts. Oh, and that classic TV Lincoln Hal Holbrook shows up in Lincoln, but obviously not as Lincoln—he delivers a gruff, memorable performance as Preston Blair.
Since I am a lifelong admirer of Lincoln, I suppose some of you might think that my wildly positive opinion of this film is less than objective. Well, I guess I’ll have to plead guilty to that charge—I’m crazy about Lincoln, and I’m crazy about this film! Still, I have to believe that Lincoln is going to appeal to a much broader audience than just us crazy Lincolnphiles—a film this wonderful deserves to be seen by a lot of people. - Mark S. Reinhart