Movie review: “Lincoln”

This past weekend Partner and I saw Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln.” It’s very good – but then it’s bound to be: not only is it directed by Spielberg, it’s based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the Lincoln administration, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, writer of “Angels in America.”  The action covers the first few months of 1865: the Civil War, while still horribly bloody, is winding down, and the North is on the verge of winning. Lincoln is faced with a choice: accept the South’s peace overtures and allow them back into the Union as if nothing has happened, or ensure that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery is passed first. If he doesn’t do the latter, the old South will insist on its slave-holding ways. If he refuses to talk peace with the South’s representatives, Congress will accuse him of holding the country hostage on behalf of the Abolitionist movement.

If this sounds dull, it’s not. Like all of Spielberg’s best movies, it seesaws between tension and calm. Its best scenes capture both: Lincoln’s ride through the battlefield after the battle of Petersburg, as he surveys the mounds of dead bodies, is captured in ominous silence.

The cast is terrific, led by Daniel Day-Lewis as a gritty folksy Lincoln, half Andy Griffith, half John the Baptist, pacing inexorably (and knowingly) toward his own death, and Sally Field as a plump frantic Mary Todd Lincoln, smarter and more subtle than any other portrayal of Mary I’ve ever seen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a young haunted Robert Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones is Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican eager to eviscerate the rebellious South; David Strathairn is a lean acute William Seward; James Cusack is a plump mustached “lobbyist” hired by Seward (and indirectly by Lincoln) to bring the House of Representatives around to Lincoln’s point of view.

The movie depicts the reelection of a popular president who is, nonetheless, abhorred by a significant chunk of the populace. This president is trying to put through a significant piece of legislation – not because it’s popular, but because it’s the right thing to do, and because if he doesn’t, he will have accomplished nothing to solve the country’s real problems. This president also faces an angry and contentious congress.

Sound familiar?

Go see this movie. It will give you something to think about.

The Library of America


The Library of America has been around for a couple of decades now.  They print little blue-covered books with black paper covers, and they use onion-skin paper. 



They are assembling the definitive collection of the Essential American Writers.



They started with the obvious: Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, the letters and speeches and writings of the Founding Fathers.



Then they started to think about what made someone an “American writer.”



I own their edition of George Washington, and two volumes of Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, and Wallace Stevens (everything he wrote fits in one book!), and Flannery O’Connor (ditto!), and Philip K. Dick, and one of their Thoreau volumes, and probably a couple of others I’m forgetting. We have a huge literary history in this country, and LOA is memorializing and perpetuating it in this series.  Their books ain’t cheap, but they’re nice editions, and they’re worth owning.



They are not perfect.  In the Lincoln volumes, I would love to know what Lincoln was responding to when he wrote his letters. Even a summary of the other person’s letter would be good. But, no, they just give you Lincoln.  (I have a collection of Groucho Marx’s letters – no, not from the Library of America, but they should think about reissuing it – and you get everything: not just the letters he wrote, but the letters he received.  Most of the time they are just as clever as his, and you get the context too.  So huh, Library of America.  Get a clue.)



LOA has covered the nineteenth century pretty completely now, I think.  They are doing the same with twentieth-century lit too (as you can probably tell, with Philip K. Dick included above). 



They are doing a pretty damned good job of preserving our country’s literature.



They do a neat little thing online: A Story A Week.  They send an email once a week, with a link to their website, and you can go read a story from one of their publications.  It is invariably something I’ve never read before.  Recently I read a bit of Mark Twain, and a short personal reminiscence by Dreiser, and a very odd thing by Edith Wharton, and a couple of things by people I’d never heard of.



It’s nice to be reminded that we have such a rich literary heritage.



And it only took us three hundred years to get there!


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