Sunday, November 18, 2012
When I first read years ago that famed director Steven Spielberg was undertaking a project to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln, our greatest President Of The United States, I was excited as well as apprehensive. To be sure, Mr. Spielberg has directed some of the most beloved films ever made, including "Jaws," "Saving Private Ryan," and "Schindler's List." He's also given us "Hook" and "Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull," proof that even a famous director comes up with clunkers. Then I happened to read that Mr. Spielberg had purchased the filming rights to author Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln." It's a good book, but it's also the "Lincoln-Book-Which-Will-Not-Die" and, in my opinion, undeserving of the excessive hype surrounding it since it was published in 2005. There are other Lincoln books which are significantly better, such as "Lincoln" by the late historian David Herbert Donald.
Then Mr. Spielberg's interest in "Lincoln" seemed to fall by the wayside as he brought us the aforementioned 4th Indiana Jones movie, "The Adventures of Tintin" and "War Horse." In fact, Spielberg's original choice to portray Lincoln, esteemed actor Liam Neeson, dropped out of the project claiming that he was too "old" to effectively play him.
But then the project gathered momentum as it was announced that our greatest living actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, had been cast as Mr. Lincoln. Sally Field as Mary Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens also joined the cast. Between these three actors, they have earned five Academy Awards ® for their craft. Rounding out this exceptional cast is David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Hal Holbrook as Lincoln adviser Preston Blair, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son Robert.
Mr. Spielberg was wise not to try to create a traditional biopic of Abraham Lincoln. To do justice to such an extraordinary life as Lincoln's would be nearly impossible in a film of only 2-3 hours in length. Instead, he chose to focus on Lincoln's fight for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which forever banned institutionalized slavery in the United States. It was a wise decision. It permitted tight focus on one of the most dramatic months in U.S. history, when Congress was trying to decide if the slaves would be truly "forever free."
The acting. Oh my, the acting. This is one of the finest overall acting performances by a movie cast in decades. It almost goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Abraham Lincoln can immediately be declared the greatest depiction of Lincoln in cinematic history. Mr. Day-Lewis "Lincoln" is the closest we will ever come to the real Lincoln. We can't possibly know how Abraham Lincoln sounded, but all accounts tell us his voice was pitched high and thin. To prepare his "voice" for Lincoln, Day-Lewis listened to old recordings of farmers from the regions of Kentucky and Indiana where Lincoln lived. The resulting voice/accent which Day-Lewis uses might be startling to many audience members, but it is as accurate as it can possibly be.
Daniel Day-Lewis took an entire year to prepare for this part. He is notoriously choosy about the roles he takes, and this is only his fifth movie of the past fifteen years. Day-Lewis who is of course British, traveled to Lincoln's town of Springfield, IL to tour the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln home, and spent hours talking with Lincoln scholars in his attempt to get to "know" the President. He studied books about Lincoln's gait, how he held his head and had stooped shoulders. The result is a truly astonishing portrayal of Mr. Lincoln. So exceptional that I felt as if I was in the presence of greatness, not just seeing "Lincoln" as he most likely was, but seeing what is probably the greatest performance of this year. In fact, it might be judged in the future as one of the most skillful performances ever seen on film. If Mr. Day-Lewis does not win his third Academy Award ® as Best Actor for this brilliant and stunning performance, it will be a travesty.
Ms. Sally Field is outstanding in her role as the haunted Mary Lincoln. She is in her own right one of the best actors of her generation, having also won two Best Acting Oscars ® for roles in "Norma Rae" and "Places In The Heart." Quite simply, this is Ms. Field's best role and work in decades. Her portrayal of Mary Lincoln is the right mix of grief, frustration, and anger at having lost two children already, including Mary and Abraham's seemingly favorite, Willie, who died of typhus in 1862. The scene where "Mary" berates "Lincoln" for not showing (in her opinion) enough grief for their son is spectacular. Ms. Field more than holds her own against Mr. Day-Lewis. Don't be surprised if she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to have complete equality, not only freedom, for slaves, is also outstanding. Stevens was himself curmudgeonly as Mr. Jones seems to be in most of his roles, but Jones' performance is a wonderful portrayal of a man who deeply cared about ALL people, especially the ones who were held in slavery. In fact, a scene toward the end of the movie is highly moving in which Jones conveys the emotions of a man who has just won a long and bitter struggle. I would expect Mr. Jones will achieve his own Oscar ® nomination for his performance.
David Strathairn, always so good, is an excellent Secretary of State "William Henry Seward." He depicts Seward as a somewhat "stuffy" man of refined tastes, who is such a loyal aide to Abraham Lincoln that he feels free to argue and at times yell at the President. It is also an accurate to life portrayal.
Spielberg chose the outstanding play and screenwriter Tony Kushner to bring the story to life. The script is a marvel, with effective dialog and a wonderful historical accuracy. Spielberg's cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has brought a perfect look and feel to the film. The colors and lighting are soft which add to the overall effect of the solemn nature of the film. And Spielberg's directing might be his finest work since "Schindler's List". It is a subdued, authentic, and restrained direction which is thankfully lacking (mostly) the sentimentality that sometimes appears in his films.
Some parents have asked me in person and via email if this film is age appropriate for children who are 11 or 12 years old. The film is rated PG-13 for language, a quick scene of brutal hand-to-hand combat, and the gore of dead bodies and amputated limbs. "Lincoln" himself uses a scatological term in a joke he tells, but the historic Lincoln didn't shy away from language and off-color stories. The language is not gratuitous nor excessive, and honestly it's probably nothing that children that age haven't already heard on the school bus or playground. If your child (or children) loves Abraham Lincoln, as so many seem to do, don't hesitate to take them to see this movie.
The performances by the actors and director, the screenplay, and the cinematography all combine to make "Lincoln" a film of extraordinary achievement. I believe it will withstand the test of time and will be deemed one of Spielberg's greatest films, if not his career masterpiece. It is a tour de force of drama, emotion, some humor, and enthralling acting. At the end of the showing, most of the audience applauded and more than a few were in tears.
If I had to rate this film in only one word, that word would be: "Perfection". Thank you, Steven Spielberg, cast and crew, for bringing Abraham Lincoln to life.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 4:14 PM
Sunday, November 4, 2012
The wedding was a hastily arranged event, with Lincoln announcing only the day before that he and Mary wanted to get married that night, but the timing was such that the wedding took place on Friday, November 4. The image above is of the original marriage certificate as filed with the state of Illinois.
Mr. Lincoln and Miss Todd had become acquainted when she moved to Springfield into the Edwards home in 1839. They met shortly after at a town dance, with Lincoln stating that he wanted to dance with Miss Todd "in the worst way." It is said that Mary quipped later that he certainly had danced with her in the "worst way." Nonetheless, the two courted and had a basic understanding that they would marry, until something caused them to break up by 1841. Only through the intercession of friends did the two resume a courtship in 1842.
The quick announcement of Lincoln's desire to "get hitched" as he called it have caused many researchers over the years to speculate that Mary Todd perhaps seduced him into marrying her. The fact that their first child, Robert, was born on August 1, 1843 does perhaps lend credence to the speculation. Of course, it is also possible that Mary became pregnant on their wedding night as the birth of Robert falls within the 9-month gestation period. Unless someone stumbles upon a previously undiscovered letter between Abraham and Mary or finds a diary of either one, we'll never know for certain.
By most accounts, the Lincolns' marriage was not an easy one. He was often gone from Springfield, traveling on the law circuit for weeks at a time. Lincoln could be distant and lost in thought, often not paying as much attention to his wife as she would have liked. Mary was highly-strung, anxious, and prone to mood swings which could be withering for anyone subjected to them. Modern historians consider her to have been suffering from bi-polar disorder (manic-depression).
Still, the Lincolns were devoted to one another and seemed to love one another very much. He affectionately called her "Molly" or "Mother" after their children were born. She referred to him as "Father" or "Husband." He worried for her mental state after the deaths of their children Eddie (1850) and Willie (1862). And she of course never recovered after her husband was assassinated as she sat by his side on the tragic night of April 14, 1865.
Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 4:44 PM
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 3:50 PM
Saturday, September 8, 2012
The American Civil War holds the fascination of millions of people throughout our nation as well as around the world. There is almost a romantic attachment to it for many as they read about the "Lost Cause," study the military strategies of the generals, and watch countless movies which depict the valor of the armies and individuals on the battlefields. But for the people of 150 years ago who suffered the loss of a husband, a son, a brother, there was nothing remotely romantic about a war which caused death on a previously unimaginable scale. The latest research places the estimated number of deaths at 750,000, or roughly 2.5 percent of the total American population (including both northern and southern states). Projected to today's population figures, that equates to the loss of 7 million lives. More Americans died in the American Civil War than in all other American wars combined.
Debuting September 18, 2012 on the long-running history program American Experience on PBS is "Death And The Civil War." Created by filmmaker Ric Burns (brother of Ken, creator of the masterpiece "The Civil War" for PBS in 1990), this film describes how profoundly the nation was affected by the slaughter of the war. It's based upon the book "This Republic Of Suffering" written by the noted historian and president of Harvard University, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and was named to the New York Times "10 Best Books of 2008" by that paper's editors. I've been asked by a publicist for this film to watch a preview copy and review it here on The Abraham Lincoln Blog. I present it here.
As this documentary points out, both sides in the American Civil War were "woefully unprepared" for the hundreds of thousands of deaths. There were no national cemeteries at the beginning of the war. No plan to bury the dead, for identifying the bodies, for notifying the families. No one, either Union or Confederate, could have known at the beginning of the war that mass death was coming. Lincoln had asked for recruits to serve for a 90-day period, thinking the war would be brief, as did the leaders of the Confederacy. Indeed, by June 1861, two months after Ft. Sumter, combined deaths stood at 20. Realization didn't sink in until after First Bull Run (or Manassas) in July of that year that the war would not end quickly nor with a small number of casualties and death.
The film helps the viewer understand the concept of what a "good death" meant to Americans in the decades leading up to the war. People expected to die at home, surrounded by family and loved ones, their final words recorded for posterity, perhaps. They truly believed that in Heaven, their bodies would be whole again, restored to health. The survivors could visit a grave, knowing that their departed lay in peace. But the war changed all that as their husbands and sons died alone or in the company of men they barely knew. Records might indicate a soldier was barely injured, when in fact he had died. Others were told their loved one had died, only to be stunned when the loved one came home alive. Many families never knew for sure what had happened; almost 140,000 Union dead remain unidentified.
Even as the war continued into 1862 and 1863, the governments of both sides still didn't assume much, if any, responsibility for their soldiers, living or dead. A young woman named Clara Barton, who went on to found the American Red Cross, organized her own army of nurses to tend to the wounded. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private organization, was also begun to treat the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union. The Confederacy also had private relief efforts.
Still, there were no coordinated efforts to bury the dead soldiers until long after the war began. Surviving troops of a particular battle might bury their comrades if they had the strength. Townspeople occasionally joined in as they did after Gettysburg. Many times, the dead were left where they fell, so that even into the late 1860's, bones were strewn across the scarred land. The first concentrated effort to properly bury soldiers occurred in the late autumn of 1863, when the first "national cemetery" was opened in Gettysburg, PA. Technically, though, the cemetery was then owned by the state. It was that cemetery which was dedicated on November 19, 1863 when President Lincoln gave his immortal address.
The film spends time analyzing the Gettysburg Address with a full recitation of it, plus brief analysis by the interviewed historians. It points out, quite accurately, that in only 271 words, Lincoln was able to provide meaning to the deaths of the soldiers, to reassure Americans that "these dead shall not have died in vain." That the cause for which they fought and died was a noble one, one to assure that government of the people would not die. At this point in the war, unfortunately, more than half of the total deaths resulting from it were yet to occur.
After the war ended, the U.S. Government finally went into action to arrange for proper burials of as many remains as possible. Congress passed legislation creating the National Cemetery system in 1867, appointing Edmund Whitman to coordinate the establishment of cemeteries, identification of as many of the dead as possible, and the proper burial of the them. It should be noted that this effort was made for the Union troops, not the Confederate soldiers. The Federal Government was not about to pay respect to the soldiers which sought to destroy the nation. This, in turn, caused bitterness and outrage among the citizens of the newly-restored southern states. So the citizens of the south, mostly women, set up their own organizations to provide a fitting burial for their own soldiers killed in action. A couple of the historians in the film seem to think that the government in Washington was harsh in not taking care of the southern dead, but as Vincent Brown (Harvard) points out, the Confederacy and its soldiers fought for the right to have a slave-owning nation.
The film concludes with a fascinating look at how Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was called then) was begun in the late 1860's, both north and south, as the survivors wanted ways of commemorating their loved ones who fought for what they believed.
"Death And The Civil War" is a haunting, sobering, and deeply affective film. It follows the now familiar method of historical documentaries by showing historical photos interspersed with interviews of various experts. Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust is the main expert, since the film is based on her book I mentioned earlier. Notable other historians in the film include Dr. David Blight (Yale) and Steven Hahn (Penn). Their insight is top notch as one would hope for from some of our greatest historians.
As can be expected of any documentary on American Experience, the film is gorgeous with outstanding cinematography, recreations, rare photos, and appropriate music. The narration, by the actor Oliver Platt, is informative although I found the rhythm and pauses in his reading to be mildly distracting.
Given the topic of the film, it can be difficult to watch if the viewer happens to be squeamish. Historical pictures of corpses, some in decay, are shown, as are photos of skulls or skeletons. Testimonies of those who buried the dead are read, complete with descriptive terms of "stench" and even "exploding corpses." If you have a weak stomach or are easily affected by descriptions of death, be warned.
At only two hours in length, the film doesn't require a significant commitment to watch as those by Mr. Burns' brother, Ken do. Still, I wish it was even 30 minutes longer so yet more information could have been presented. Lincoln's assassination at the end of the Civil War, for example, also profoundly affected Americans for decades, yet this event is mentioned only very briefly in the film. The deaths of the soldiers deeply moved him as well, a topic which he covered in his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, only one month prior to his own demise.
"Death And The Civil War is a superbly crafted film and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who is interested in the war. PBS' American Experience is the most-watched history show on television for a reason, thanks to the quality of the programs it airs. "Death And The Civil War" is no exception. It is, quite simply, a triumph. Congratulations to Mr. Burns, Dr. Faust, PBS, and "American Experience." You may read more about the film and view a preview of it on the American Experience website.
"Death And The Civil War" premieres Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. on PBS. Check local listings for showings on your local PBS station.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 4:11 PM
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL and www.slashfilm.com, here is the first official image of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis in full make up as Abraham Lincoln. As nearly every Lincoln buff knows, Mr. Day-Lewis will star in Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln" due for release on November 9, 2012. Based on the book-which-will-not-die, Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Spielberg's film is rumored to follow the final four months of the president's life.
I realize that makeup artists can work wonders, but this image makes it appear as though a previously-unknown photograph of the real Lincoln has been discovered. It's stunning. Let's hope that the film will be as breathtaking as this photo.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 11:29 AM
Monday, July 2, 2012
When the Congressmen and Senators (mostly Democrats) of the Southern states chose to resign from the legislative branch of government when secession began in 1860, the door was left wide open for the remaining members (nearly all Republican) to pass pieces of legislation. President Abraham Lincoln signed these Congressional Acts into law throughout his presidency. The early days of July 1862 saw the signing into law of some of the most historic pieces of Congressional legislation in our history.
July 1st of that crucial year featured Lincoln signing into law the United States' first-ever graduated national income tax. The Revenue Act of 1862 imposed a 3% tax on any annual income in excess of $600 (about $13,600 in 2012 dollars) with a tax of 5% imposed on incomes greater than $10,000 (roughly $227,000 in 2012). The Act was signed into law by Lincoln in order to provide money for fighting the Civil War. The legislation called for the expiration of the tax in 1866. It replaced the flat-tax which had been imposed in 1861, the Revenue Act of 1861 repealed by the 1862 Act.
The next day featured an incredible flurry of signings into law of legislation, some of which affect us even today. My previous post discusses the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 which led to the creation of nearly 100 institutions of higher learning across the United States.
Lincoln also signed that day the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which eventually led to the building of the nation's first transcontinental railroad. The Act permitted the Union Pacific Railroad to construct a railroad from east to west, the eastern terminus being in Council Bluffs, IA and Omaha, Nebraska. It also called for the Central Pacific Railroad to begin construction in California (western terminus) and continue east. Eventually, of course, the two railroads linked in Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. Ironically, it was Lincoln himself who had been invited to choose the eastern terminus (or beginning point) of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1857.
A Treaty of Commerce between the United States and The Ottoman Empire (now modern Turkey) was also signed on July 2, 1862 by Lincoln. The treaty basically established the process for business, including customs and duties, for business between the two governments.
Finally on July 8, 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. The new law banned bigamy or polygamy in the Utah Territory, "disincorporated" the Mormon Church, and restricted its ability to own land. Although the Act did become law, the U.S. government did not enforce it and the act was superseded by other legislation in the 1880's.
These Congressional Acts and Lincoln's signing of them, are just a few examples of the numerous pieces of legislation passed by a Republican Congress during the American Civil War. I would never advocate one-party government for our nation today. But 1862 serves as proof that when Congress and the President can work together, great things can be achieved for the betterment of all of us. I wish today's "leaders" would learn from the examples set 150 years ago.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 8:44 PM
July 2, 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States of America. Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act on July 2, 1862. The Act led to the creation of numerous universities and colleges which have gone on to be some of the finest in the nation.
The photo above is of Vermont Congressman (later U.S. Senator) Justin Smith Morrill, who sponsored the legislation later named for him. The purpose of the Act was to provide each state with federal public lands for the establishment of public universities or colleges for teaching the agricultural and mechanic arts. Under the Act, each state would be allocated 30,000 acres of public land for each representative and senators the particular state had in Congress as of the Census of 1860. Therefore, the more populous states received more land than did the western states. Once the states agreed to receive the federal lands, it was up to them to either sell the lands to raise money for construction of the institution(s) or to use the land itself for the colleges.
Such an Act had first been proposed at least 20 years prior to passage, but Southern states were opposed to such a use of federal lands. When the Act was originally passed in 1859, President James Buchanan, always a friend to the South, vetoed it. With the secession of the Southern states beginning in 1860, the Act gained fresh momentum and President Lincoln signed the new Act. The states then in rebellion against the federal government were specifically banned from receiving any public lands under the legislation, but the Act was later used to expand the benefits to those states once the Civil War was over. The Act was renewed in 1890 to force the Southern states to prove that race was not used to prevent admissions of students. And in 1994 the Act was used again to provide for Native-American institutions of learning.
The Hawkeye State, Iowa, has the proud claim of being the first to accept the terms of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. The Act helped provide financial support to Ames College, which is now Iowa State University. The list of land-grant institutions is an impressive one. Just some of the universities are: University of Maryland; Pennsylvania State University; West Virginia University; Purdue University; Clemson; Texas A&M; Michigan State University; and The Ohio State University. There are two private universities which were created under the auspices of the Act, and they are among the best in the nation: Cornell University in New York and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Few people may have ever heard of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and even fewer have ever heard of Justin Smith Morrill. But thanks to his sponsorship of this Act, countless millions have benefited from it.
Most people know of Abraham Lincoln's lack of formal education. By his own estimates, he had not more than twelve (12) months of formal schooling in his entire life. That fact embarrassed him throughout his life, and he was a strong supporter of education. He encouraged education in many speeches, and in personal letters to those who sought his advice.
Thanks to Representative Justin Smith Morrill and President Abraham Lincoln, all of us have excellent institutions of higher learning where we all can further our own education. We all should be grateful to these two men. The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, signed into law 150 years ago today.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 7:58 PM
Thursday, June 28, 2012
In July of last year, I posted an article about two men who were arrested and charged with the attempted theft of rare, historic documents written by several U.S. Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln. The man pictured above, Barry Landau, was one of the men charged.
Yesterday, Mr. Landau (now convicted in the case), was sentenced in federal court in Baltimore to serve a term of seven years. After that sentence is completed, he is to serve a supervised release of three years.
Landau and his partner stole at least 6,000 documents over the course of a few years. Some of those documents were sold to dealers. The thefts occurred in Ohio, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and other states.
The full article about Landau's sentence may be read here. In my opinion, his sentence and the accompanying fine aren't enough punishment. One cannot put a price on historical documents.
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 1:28 PM
Monday, June 25, 2012
The premise of the movie (and novel) is, of course, ridiculous, over-the-top, and campy. But as I wrote in my review of the novel, it all somehow works. In fact, it works well. The film's combat sequences between Mr. Lincoln and his various enemies are stylish, exciting, and at times even gripping. While I wish this film (and so many others) would use the "Matrix"-like slow-motion effects much less than they do, they are nonetheless well-done and effective. The "choreography" of the fight scenes is quite good. I'm not sure if the ax twirling is actually done by Walker or if it's cinematic sleight-of-hand. It's at times dazzling. Yes, some of the film is gory as to be expected, but I've seen "slasher" films which are far worse.
As for the "history" imparted in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," well, we need to remember that this is obviously mostly fiction. Some of the "facts" are true: Lincoln's mother did die when he was 9. He moved to Springfield in 1837, where he met his friend Speed and his future wife Mary. The scene where the U.S. Capitol dome is shown unfinished during his inauguration is accurate, as is the platform on which he stood to take the oath of office. The Washington Monument is shown incomplete, which is also accurate. We cannot expect complete 100% accuracy, of course. (That will be expected of Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" bio-pic coming out in December)
I've read the novel and seen the film. I have to be honest and state that I enjoyed the book more than I did the film. As in any film adaptation of the novel upon which it is based, there are things left out, things added, and different events altogether. The novel is, at times, gripping. The film sometimes dragged a bit in my opinion. The vampires could be a bit scarier; the ending of the film vs. that of the novel left something to be desired. I would strongly recommend seeing this in 3-D, which actually adds a good bit to this movie, when it's unfortunately only a gimmick for so many others. The movie earns its "R" rating for violence, a brief (and unnecessary) "F" word, and a very quick sex scene including a glimpse of nudity. Definitely not a film for teens much under the age of 17.
All in all, I liked this movie. It's exciting, entertaining, and harmless fun. It's not overly long and holds the viewer's attention.
But the best thing of all about "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (both the film and the novel) is that it has renewed interest in the real Abraham Lincoln among countless people. Mr. Lincoln is endlessly fascinating. Even as a Vampire Hunter.
3.5 axes out of 5.0
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 9:21 PM