Revisiting Ulysses

These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance.  I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President.  And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.

ulysses_s_grant_by_brady_c1870-restoredIt’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly.  During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death.  But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death.  His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses.  He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.

The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant.  When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened.  I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant.   I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point.  (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)

American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility.  He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented.  Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee.  To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable.  President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.

With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed.  He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery.  Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views.  And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.

His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships.  Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye.  When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.

It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised.  In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.

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Lincoln, Revisited

Kish and I saw Lincoln yesterday.  It’s a wonderful movie, and I would highly recommend it to everyone.

https://i2.wp.com/i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2012/10/20/CCSpielbergLincoln1280x960_460x329.jpgI don’t have much to add to Richard’s excellent, thoughtful review of the film.  Daniel Day-Lewis was terrific as Lincoln.  For an actor, what role could be more difficult than bringing real life touches to an iconic figure most Americans now see less as a human being, and more as a colossal marble statue?  Under the masterful direction of Steven Spielberg, and with the able assistance of some fine actors and great sets and scenery, the film creates a realistic, tobacco-spitting, bewhiskered and ball gown-wearing, deeply racist, embarrassingly eloquent, and entirely believable depiction of America during the Civil War.  Sure, Sally Field was too old to play Mary Todd Lincoln, but that casting clinker can’t take away from an otherwise exceptionally well done movie.

My only complaint is not about the acting or the production value, but about the script.  The story told by the film was not the story of Lincoln’s life, but rather the story of Lincoln’s resolve to secure passage of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery before the Civil War ended — and his deft politicking to achieve that goal.  So why, then, couldn’t the movie end with Lincoln enjoying that success?  Why must every Lincoln movie proceed to the heartbreak of his assassination and the solemn pronouncement that “now he belongs to the ages”?

I recognize that Lincoln’s martrydom is an essential part of the Lincoln saga, but that doesn’t mean we have to be hit over the head with that fact whenever Lincoln is mentioned.  How refreshing it would have been to see the movie end with Lincoln enjoying his triumph!  We would still know that death awaited him, of course — every American knows that to their core — but seeing him relishing a satisfying and historic victory would have exposed a different facet of the man.

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.

Super 8

From the 90-degree temperatures that have made Columbus a sweltering place in the last week or so, I think it is safe to say that it is summer.  So, Kish and I decided we should dip our toes in the summer movie season, and tonight we went to Super 8.  It was a wise decision.

Super 8 is a great summer movie.  It draws deeply on the strong Hollywood tradition of youngster “coming of age” movies.  Think of E.T., and Stand By Me, and you will get a sense of the arc of the storyline.  The movie is set in 1979 — and in Ohio! — where a gang of nerdy young boys who are filming a Super 8 movie about zombies end up enmeshed in a much bigger story than they expected.  The hero, who is dealing with tragedy in his own life, grows up quickly as he is faced with great challenges, and along the way the dialogue between the kids crackles, there are a number of humorous moments, and terrific recreations of the 1970s clothing styles, hairstyles, and lifestyles bring back lots of memories.  Couple that with some very moving set pieces — a scene where the young male and female leads inadvertently watch some home movies left Kish in tears — as well as action, sci-fi, an alien, a military cover-up, and just the right amount of computer-generated special effects, and you’ve got all of the elements that anyone could want in a summer blockbuster.

Director J.J. Abrams seems to have his hand on the pulse on America in the same way that Steven Spielberg did during his heyday.  Abrams gets wonderful performances from his two leads — Joel Courtney as the growing-up-before-our-eyes Joe Lamb, and Elle Fanning in a stunning tour de force as Alice Dainard — but the rest of the young cast members are quite good, too.  (I particularly liked Ryan Lee as firecracker-obsessed Cary, a pitch-perfect ’70s kid.)  They also are tremendously believable as the wisecracking young gang that is struggling to grow up while also still reveling in simple childlike pursuits, like lighting firecrackers, building models, and trying to make Super 8 movies. The adult actors are all good, but the kids really steal the show.

If you go to this movie — and I highly recommend you do — be sure you stay for the screening of the finished Super 8 movies that runs during the credits.  It is a classic in its own right.