Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. It’s just an experiment for a history nut looking for an outlet. Apologies if I come off as pedantic- that is the last thing I want to do. I love reading non-fiction, and reading about Abraham Lincoln has become quite a hobby. I have been interested in him for years but have only really been a student of Lincolniana for about five years. That might seem like a long time, but being one of the most-written about people in history, there is so much material and interpretation regarding him that you really have to dig deep to get to the real guy. But we are lucky to have so many sources on him. 🙂
I suppose I could consider myself an amateur Lincoln historian. I have read countless books and articles on the man. I’ve also read all of his published writings and letters of correspondence (his letters are my favorite.) I’ve read books about his wife’s family, and double biographies comparing him to other influential men of his time, like Stephen Douglass or Charles Darwin. I’ve read countless contemporary accounts which describe what it was like to be in his presence, what his voice sounded like, the expressions on his face, his innate sadness, and even how he walked. (Back then people were better at deep observation and clear description.) I’ve read how the historiography and public perception encompassing him has evolved over the years. I know all of the myths that surround him. I’ve also read a lot of critical books on Lincoln in which he is interpreted as a tyrannical president. I know the arguments against him. I feel like the critiques are especially important; you have to be able to argue all sides in order to understand your subject wholly. I feel confident in my knowledge of Lincoln, those around him, and his world. So if you trust me enough, please let me explain why the film Lincoln was amazing.
Going to the theater the other night to the film, I knew it would either be something really great, or, something I would pick apart. Well- wait, who are we kidding? We all know we’re in good hands when it comes to Daniel Day-Lewis. I am just a little surprised at how freaking well he did it because I’m used to Hollywood taking history and bastardizing the shit out of it. That indeed was not the case here. As far as I’m concerned, he nailed Lincoln.
Lincoln was very often described as, well, ugly. His homeliness was prominent. He would even joke this about himself. When a woman accused him of being two-faced, he replied, “Ma’am, if I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?” He also held a deep aura of sadness about him. Some said that you could see it in his face when he’d descend into one of his “spells”.
But once a person got to know him all of that melted away. Anyone who met him said that once he started to speak, especially if he was telling one of his ‘stories’, his whole face lit up and his visage would suddenly change from that of darkness to bright light. A lot of people remarked about the sparkle in his eyes. There are many scenes wherein DDL exhibits this sparkle but also the weighted sadness that the president carried about him.
This brings us to the walk. You won’t be able to help but notice how he walks in the film. I’ll say that this little detail was something that really impressed me about DDL’s performance. When I saw how he would kind of stoop and heavily move himself along, I knew he really did his homework. Actually, he was shooting for extra-credit here. Here’s just one account of how Lincoln walked:
“He walked as though he was always about to plunge forward; and he put his whole foot down at once, not rising from the toe, and hence he had no spring in his step. His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” People also remarked about how he walked as though his body was really heavy, and his joints always looked rather awkward. DDL brought to life all of this. I love that kind of attention to detail.
Lincoln’s voice was a big issue for the actor. He apparently spent a lot of time researching what his voice sounded like. Well, my friends, so have I, and I must say that I think he got as close as anyone can get. It’s pretty incredible, really. Surprisingly, (mostly to the people who met Lincoln the first time), his voice was rather high-pitched, with a bit of a Kentucky screech. Historians say it actually worked to his advantage because a tenor voice carries better to crowds than does a deeper one. Who knew?
So the big three physical aspects of Lincoln he got right. The duality of his ugly & sad/ bright & colorful visage, his unusual walk, and his surprising voice. Check, check, and check. A+ for him so far.
And now for how he captured his essence. Which begs the question, what was the essence of Lincoln? It’s what I love about him most, and there’s so much to him. There’s much to say here but I’ll keep it ‘short’ with some tidbits.
His humility and kindness are what I find most striking about him. He was one of those people who immediately put you at ease (which I also love about my husband.) It was a combination of wisdom and past experiences that allowed him to put his ego aside and be able to look at the bigger, and more important picture. He treated everybody he knew and met with dignity and courtesy. With the people surrounding Lincoln, there was always the sense that they never knew what he was really thinking. He was an incredibly private man who didn’t divulge much. However, he was brilliant in how he handled them; coyly utilizing them in ingenious ways in order to serve the greater good. He had the patience to endure their criticisms when they didn’t know what he was up to, and the fortitude to stand firm with what he intended. He carried a huge burden because of the war, and used humor as a means of dealing with so much pressure and grief. He once said that “with the fearful strain upon me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die.”
I admire his self-education, and his incredible memory for passages and books. I admire how he never held a grudge against any body and how well he suffered the egos of other politicians. Once, (years before he became president), a fellow lawyer met Lincoln who was supposed to help with a case. He dismissed Lincoln as a “gorilla” and refused to let him take part. Years later, recognizing this man’s particular ability and talent, Lincoln asked him to join his cabinet as Secretary of War. That man accepted, and after spending time with Lincoln and getting to know him, Edwin Stanton became one of his most ardent admirers. He is also the one who gets pissed at Lincoln for his stories at times (which you will see in the film) because he finds it inappropriate. Did Lincoln give a shit? Hell no. He needed humor like a hobo is in need of a ham sandwich.
Lincoln was really just a likeable guy. I think this movie captures that. I think that upon watching it, you almost feel as though you’ve met him too. I would rate this movie (on a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being an abomination and 10 being the stuff of bad-assery,) a 10 in historical accuracy. So much of the dialogue was verbatim from what really occurred. The attention to detail (the Jackson portrait in Lincoln’s office, his wearing shawls around the White House, the antics of his son Tad, the anecdotes/stories he tells, the conversation he has with Mary on their last carriage ride, his tendency to put his notes and speeches in his hat, etc.), were all really there, done, or said. There were a couple of parts where I knew what would happen or be said next. Yep, it was that spot on and I need that much of a life.
The resemblance of the entire cast to their characters was incredible. Watch out in particular for these characters because believe you me, they looked nearly exact:
Well done Spielberg, and bravo Daniel Day-Lewis. Thank you for convincingly taking me to a beloved time and place. Most of all, long live Lincoln!
Here’s a little paradoxical treat that not a lot of people get to see- the only photo in existence of Lincoln’s body as he lay in state.