Review: Lincoln

Lincoln and his cabinet.

Lincoln and his cabinet.

In a scene in the middle of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman, chides Abraham Lincoln for waiting so long to make an attempt to end slavery.

Lincoln responds that if he had tried to end slavery after the war began in 1861, the border states would have joined the Confederacy, leading to the Union’s defeat and making the chances of emancipation even more remote. Stevens sits there with a defensive expression on his face, unable to offer a rebuttal.

Abraham Lincoln’s character – his blend of compassion and pragmatism – is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as its title makes clear. Most Civil War epics focus on the great battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Lincoln concentrates on the role the 16th president played in the great legislative battle over the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

Those who pay $9 to see artillery fire and bayonet charges will be disappointed by the film. The few battle scenes are short and brutal, serving only to remind viewers of one of the many pressures weighing on Lincoln’s mind as he decided the best way to end the war.

The ongoing carnage has led the Democrats and the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose passage of the 13th amendment out of the fear it will ruin peace negotiations. They pester Lincoln for even bringing up emancipation, while the Radical Republicans pester him for not pressing emancipation hard enough.

In his portrayal of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man aware that his role in history is to herd his hard-headed colleagues toward emancipation and peace. He does this mostly through slippery legislative techniques we would associate more with LBJ: patronage, cajoling, and even a little bit of dishonesty. Moralizing is used only as a last resort.

Two of Lincoln’s great speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, make it into the film, but they seem only rhetorical flourishes for Lincoln’s legislative masterwork. Unseemly political tactics are an essential part of Republican government, in any year; during the Civil War our country was lucky to have a brilliant president who used them to achieve great things.

I could think of no historical character more deserving of a portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, with his well-known thoroughness, than the complicated, monumental Lincoln. Ironically, the British actor brings America’s most revered historical figure to life. Instead of the booming voice most Lincoln impersonators use, he employs a more realistic reedy twang. He demonstrates Lincoln’s penchant for funny anecdotes well enough to get my theater laughing a couple times. With saggy eyelids, a slight hunch and a sad smile, he communicates the weariness and the spiritual burdens Lincoln acquired after four years of a wartime presidency.

He also gives him flaws. In scenes of discord with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he shows Lincoln as a man prone to indecision and anger, like the rest of us. Underneath it all, though, is the wisdom and strength of character that made Lincoln such an icon.

A great cast joins Day-Lewis in creating real people out of the historical figures known only through stodgy old photographs and dry academic writing. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman so anxious, in large part due to the death of her son Tad shortly before the beginning of the film, that I both felt sorry for her and wanted to avoid her. Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln is a frustrated young man imprisoned at Harvard by his mother’s worries while he would rather be proving himself on the battlefield.

Thanks to the full-fledged performances and the attention to detail in the sets, costumes, accents and 19th-century lingo, the movie creates such a convincing image of 1865 that it felt like a precious window into the past. The United States of 1865 is a character itself, tired of war and uncomfortable with the great changes it is undergoing. The new capitol building is so blindingly white that it seems both inspiring and awkward amongst the dingy buildings and muddy streets of Washington, D.C. The telegraphs that bring news of the results of battles and their casualties seem to strike the characters as exciting and frightening, and the same could be said of the freed blacks who have just begun serving in the army.

At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the theater into the parking lot, I felt like I had returned from a trip to the past. I was conscious of the fact that I and my surroundings were products of the historical currents portrayed in the movie. Some characters in the movie, including Lincoln, ask what America should be like after the war ends, how it can heal the scars of slavery. Stepping back into modern-day America, I had an opportunity to examine the way the United States chose to proceed from their eyes.

Advertisements

A Bruising Win, And Now On To Michigan Week

Whew!  Ohio State escaped from Camp Randall Stadium with a 21-14 overtime win in one of the toughest, hardest-fought games you’re likely to see this year.

It wasn’t a pretty game offensively.  The Buckeye offense was pitiful during the second half, when it had multiple chances to put the game away.  The low point came when, with time running out in the fourth quarter, the offense could have salted the game away with one first down — but was unable to pick it up.  Wisconsin’s defense was terrific, and never let Braxton Miller shake loose.  The Badgers covered the Ohio State receivers like a wet blanket, and Miller often seemed baffled about what to do.  Ohio State’s coaching staff had better figure that out, because Michigan will be studying how Wisconsin defended the Buckeyes and will try to follow that approach next week.

The Ohio State defense, though, was stellar.  The Silver Bullets gave up yardage to Montee Ball — who doesn’t? — but penned him in and produced countless big plays.  The biggest was the lick Ryan Shazier laid on Ball to force a fumble on a fourth and goal with time ticking down in the fourth quarter, followed by a stout stand that gave the Buckeyes the win in overtime.  Defensive lineman John Simon was all over the field, playing his heart out.  He graduates this year, but his studly, never-say-quit play has earned him a place in the pantheon of Buckeye gridiron greats.

This was the kind of rugged defensive battle that epitomizes Big Ten football.  The Buckeyes prevailed, won the Big Ten Leaders division (who cares?), and moved to 11-0.  Now it’s on to Michigan Week, when the Wolverines come to the Horseshoe.  In football’s greatest rivalry game, Michigan will have the chance to ruin Ohio State’s perfect record, and Ohio State will have the opportunity to keep Michigan out of the Big Ten championship game.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Buckeyes And The Badgers

At 3:30 this afternoon, the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes play the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.  The venue will be rocking, as it always seems to be when Ohio State plays Wisconsin.

These teams have a very good rivalry going, in both football and basketball.  In football, the teams have taken turns knocking each other off in recent years, often in dramatic fashion.  Last year, Ohio State’s nail-biting win over the highly ranked Badgers was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal season, and the year before Wisconsin handed Ohio State its only loss.  In basketball, Bo Ryan and Thad Matta have established a tremendous rivalry; each program has had excellent teams in recent years and the season series has been split in each of the last three seasons.  Next to traditional rival Michigan, Wisconsin is Ohio State’s top adversary in the Big Ten and, I think, the team Buckeye Nation most wants to beat in the big-money sports.

Today’s game should be a classic.  Wisconsin is a tough team that has lost three close games.  It features the perennial punishing ground game that you expect from a Wisconsin football team; top running back Montee Ball has already rushed for more than 1200 yards and is mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate.  The Badgers strap it up and run right at you, which means the Ohio State defensive line will need to come to play.  The Wisconsin defense, on the other hand, has been terrific in keeping opponents off the scoreboard and is one of the best defenses in the country in that category.  Add in the din that always is found in Camp Randall Stadium, and you have all the makings of a barnburner.

To win this game, the Buckeyes need to get off to a good start — something they haven’t been able to do in many games this year.  On offense, the Buckeyes will need to mix it up and Braxton Miller will need to be as accurate with his arm as he has been elusive with his feet.  The Ohio State defense must stop Ball and the Badgers’ ground game.  It would be nice for Ohio State to get a big lead and force Wisconsin to throw, but that’s probably wishful thinking.  This will probably be one of those back-and-forth, hard-hitting games where turnovers tell the tale — and one that will add to the luster of this fine Big Ten rivalry.

Twinkie, Noooooooo!

As a result of a labor dispute, Hostess — the makers of the Twinkie, that joyous, anti-nutritious concoction that has long been a favorite of hefty American children, myself included — is going out of business.

Nooooooo!  It’s bad enough that thousands of workers will lose their jobs, but can it really be that the Twinkie will go the way of the Dodo?  How can a cruel world deprive youngsters of the finger-licking pleasures of cream-filled, yellow sponge-caked goodness, dipped in milk?

I therefore republish the Webner House Ode to a Twinkie, not in celebration, but in sorrow:

O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!

O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!  The noon hour now draws nigh

My morning classes will be done, to you my thoughts do fly

The bell will ring, the rush will start, and we will race to lunch

The crinkled paper bag will ope, on PBJ I’ll munch

But O!  Dessert!  Dessert!

My hungry heart doth beat

For in my sack I soon shall find

A cream-filled sponge cake treat.


O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!  Your sponge cake damp and gold

And filled with tasty frosting, sweet and white and bold

The wrapper tears, my eyes grow wide, the sticky mass I grasp

And clutch to waiting bosom like Cleo and the asp

And so to eat!  To eat!  To eat!

With glass of milk, ice cold

Then lick till clean the bottom square

Of its crumbs, wet and gold.


O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!  My lustrous sack lunch friend

The sight of you gives rise to thoughts of lunch’s happy end

Your taste I crave, and I desire to see you on my plate

I do not mind if you are made of calcium sulfate

Fear not, my friend!  Fear not!  Fear not!

We’ll eat you still with pride

Come Polysorbate 60, hell,

or grim diglyceride!