Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones
(PG-13, 150 min.)
"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Abraham Lincoln
I can’t promise you’ll be a better person after watching this near perfect film. But you’ll want to be. And that is saying a lot. Steven Spielberg again reminds us that one purpose of great drama is to inspire as well as delight. His film does both.
It helps that Spielberg is chronicling one who is arguably America’s greatest President, an essentially simple man in the best sense of that often pejorative word. Yet Spielberg, working with a wedge of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, manages to capture Lincoln's complexity as well.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s President Lincoln is both eloquent and an unschooled backwoods lawyer, having prepared to pass his legal exam through study rather than attending law school. He delights in telling little homespun stories to emphasize a point, and he is not beneath a rather salacious tale involving England, a portrait of George Washington, and an outhouse. He is a tender, and perhaps even an indulgent father, a long suffering husband contending with a neurotic wife, and still a willful and wily politician using all the tricks to achieve a noble purpose.
The film concentrates on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, when the catastrophic War Between the States, weighed down by the blood-soaked bodies in blue and gray, is on the verge of ending with the Union intact. Lincoln knows his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may not stand up legally, and he is desperate to have it pass the Congress as the 13th Amendment to the constitution. If the war ends without its passage, he fears the slaves that have already been freed may be re-enslaved.
Daniel Day-Lewis brings a very human dimension to his iconic portrait of Lincoln. The opening scene sets the tone, Lincoln sitting wearily as Union soldiers return from the battlefield. He listens to the tribulations of two soldiers with patience and consideration and takes in the idealistic admiration of another pair– who between them recite a long portion of the Gettysburg Address – with the same equanimity. This is the kind of photo op today’s Presidents pay their consultants big bucks to create, but with Lincoln it is just his obligation as a true man of the people.
So too with the scene where he visits the maimed and wounded in the hospital, sitting down to talk to the – boys they really are – much like he would to his own son. Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln’s humility in his eyes and face, a battlefield of sorts reflecting the blood and carnage that are a daily feature of those final months of the war. And there is his walk. It is slow and almost hesitant, as weary as a soldier limping home from battle.
The supporting cast is admirable, but dwarfed by the consummate actor who towers over them just as the six-feet-four-inch Abraham Lincoln did his contemporaries. Sally Field plays his wife, whose grief over the death of one of their sons unhinges her. Is it a tribute or a flaw in her acting that her temperamental flights from maudlin scold to prima donna feistiness wear on us as much as they obviously do on her long-suffering husband?
Tommy Lee Jones, as the flamboyant Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, works hard to make us accept him in a black wig and gentlemanly clothes with just a shadow of his ubiquitous Texas drawl. He is at his best when he insults his fellow Congressman in no uncertain terms:
How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio? Proof that some men are inferior. Endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood. You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.
No wonder Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has invited all his colleagues to attend a screening. They might add a bit of wit and truth to their typical hypocritical polite posturing.
Or as I suggested earlier, perhaps they will be inspired to become better persons. One can always hope.
Maybe they didn’t have any First Lady cookie recipe contests during the run up to Presidential elections back in Lincoln’s time, but we are privy to the First Lady's very own Sugar Cookie recipe thanks to the volunteers at the Araham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museun in Springfield, Illinois.
I have gone along with Kate Lawson, the Detroit News columnist who has wisely overlooked such 1847 favorites as Hasty Pudding, Hardtack, Pounded Cheese, or that tempting favorite, Roasted Raccoon, and chosen a dish more suitable to the times. In fact, it’s just in time for Christmas cookies.
Feel free to mold them into Santa Claus or angels, and decorate them with as many sprinkles as you like.
Ho. Ho. Ho.
Mary Todd Lincoln Sugar Cookies
From A. Lincoln Cookbook
1 cup butter
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon salt
Combine butter, vegetable oil, 1 cup of granulated sugar and powdered sugar, and beat until creamy. Add one egg. Add other egg with the vanilla extract. Combine flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Add to butter mixture. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls. Drop balls into granulated sugar and roll them around. Using an everyday kitchen glass, dip the base into the sugar and press the balls out onto a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool. Makes 60 cookies.