Thursday, December 13, 2012

“Lincoln”: The Face of History

Forty-three high school AP history students sat in front of me this afternoon during a screening of “Lincoln.” I was nervous during the previews: they were not sitting still. But I needn’t have worried. Once the feature started, they never moved. I didn’t even see the glow of a cell phone.

Which is amazing considering the intricacy of the law and politics underlying “Lincoln,” which is about the fight to ratify the 13th Amendment, the one and only topic of this 2.5-hour film. What silenced them, and what makes “Lincoln” a great film, I think, is that it shows the faces, not the forces of history.

As I tried to argue this morning, when posting on apostolic tradition, history isn’t the result of abstract forces. It’s not conceptual, not some invisible force of necessity pushing and pulling us all. History is a chain of human moments. Especially in Steven Spielberg’s beautiful film, history is faces, face to face.

The opening scene gave me chills. Two black Union soldiers stand facing the camera, addressing an unknown third person. They are describing the war, and the contributions of black soldiers to the Union cause, and the inequality of black troops with white. Finally the camera pulls back to see whom they are talking to. The hulking but slender silhouette could only be our 16th President, seated and silently listening.

Two white soldiers’ faces are added to form a Union chorus of four, and together, black and white, the soldiers give Lincoln a complete recitation of his Gettysburg Address. It is magical.

But then so is the entire film. As the forces mass for and against a Constitutional Amendment banning slavery in January 1865 are shown, and especially the complex forces of opposition are tweezed apart like threads on a giant tapestry so that we can see each of them, one at a time, it is always faces that tell. Tommy Lee Jones and David Straithairn as two of Lincoln’s allies, Senator Thaddeus Stephens and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Hal Holbrook as the grey eminence Preston Blair. And Sally Field, heading the family side of the story. She is perfect for the thankless role of Mary Todd Lincoln, hysterical yet helping, lonely but still loved by her husband Abraham.

There were moments when I thought an actor looked too much like himself, too modern, all done up in fake chin whiskers and 19th-century dress. But even this contributed to the sense that I was seeing a great human tapestry, one face at a time. It made the history even more present to me, somehow.

And no face is more telling, or human, than Day-Lewis’s as Lincoln. It is a long time since I remember enjoying him so much, not since those first great performances in “My Left Foot” and “The Name of the Father.” This is Oscar stuff, and so is the film.

A great movie about our greatest President.

1 comment:

  1. I think my husband and I are the only folks who say the movie and went "meh.."

    I am glad you liked it.


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