Full disclosure: My birthday is Feb. 12. It always has been and I suspect it always will be. So even as a child, I found what I took to be a personal connection with Abraham Lincoln, with whom I shared my birthday. It gave me a way to touch and admire greatness. I regarded then — and still do — the connection as something special.
It is no doubt at least partially because of this accident of birth that I came to be inexorably interested in the Civil War. I grew up reading the age-appropriate books about Lincoln and the war and, when finally reaching adulthood, my interest grew to where I now have a personal library of more than 100 volumes on the conflict.
This doesn't make me an expert; it just makes me a history buff.
In any case, when I learned several years ago that iconic movie director Steven Spielberg was planning a flick on Lincoln, I was both joyous and cautious. While a magnificent storyteller (I still shudder at the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan), I had some reservations about Spielberg doing something on Lincoln, especially with his predilection for occasionally going over the top and into deep space (recall the final sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
What was I worried about?
Kim and I went to Salisbury Thanksgiving Day morning to take in the 11:40 a.m. early bird showing of Lincoln (only $4.75 apiece, although the shared large diet Coke and ginormous bucket of popcorn nearly bankrupted me for the week). Good idea. There were only 20 people in the theatre.
I was taken aback almost immediately by actor Daniel Day-Lewis' appearance as the 16th president. Based on photographs we know of Lincoln, it was eerily right on. So were the resemblances of other actors to their historical counterparts: Sally Field was great as Mary Todd Lincoln, as was David Strathairn as William Seward; Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as son Robert Lincoln; and quite spectacularly, Jackie Earle Haley was spot-on as Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens.
Aside from the physical resemblances, the script was engrossing. The movie is really about the backroom machinations to get the 13th amendment to the Constitution — the one that abolishes slavery forever — passed through the House. This is something that Lincoln was passionate about; he eagerly signed the passed amendment even though as president he was not required to do so. The movie clearly defines Lincoln's passion for the project.
Consequently, this is a movie full of intelligent dialogue and not so much of saber light swords and exploding planets.
While Hollywood has a tendency to distort history in an effort to entertain and keep bottoms in their seats, Lincoln was still very compelling. Because it's history, we know how it ends. That's what makes the challenge even more gripping for Spielberg, et al, and I believe they succeeded.
(Curiously, I just watched, for the first time, The King's Speech on television last night. This is another almost exclusively dialogue movie, and I was hooked. Hey, I like to see stuff blow up as much as anybody. But sometimes it's refreshing to be treated as an adult by smart screenplay.)
Yes, there might be a nit to pick here and there. The opening sequence where a couple of soldiers end up reciting bits of the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln is no doubt a fabrication — nobody was reciting that speech two years after Lincoln gave it — but coupled as a bookend with a flashback scene of the Second Inaugural (a speech arguably even greater than the Gettysburg Address), this storytelling device is powerful.
Full disclosure: Lincoln is an exceptional movie, more than I expected with my boatload of expectations. I can't recommend it enough.