Honest Abe on the Big Screen

29 Nov

My inner history nerd was out in full force last night when I watched Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s artful new film about the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It took me right back to my undergrad years, when I was majoring in US history, convinced that I was going to do a PhD in American civil rights movements in mid-twentieth century. Fastforward 10 years – the PhD part is true, but that’s where the parallels end.

I had mixed expectations going into the film. The trailer had me a tad underwhelmed, and I really couldn’t imagine how a movie that seemed steeped in rhetoric was going to keep up a strong pace for several hours (Spielberg? Less than two hours? Not a chance).

Not only did the movie far surpass all my expectations, I left feeling as though somehow, I was privy to a special, rarified side of American history. Granted, the movie is probably filled with historical inaccuracies For example, an NU professor, Kate Masur took to the NY Times Op-Ed page to decry the filmmakers crucial emission of African Americans’ role in ending slavery.

Despite all this, the film was arresting. With this performance, Daniel Day-Lewis has cemented his place as one of the finest actors to ever grace this planet. I was a little nervous about ‘the voice’ after watching the trailer, but his acting was so powerful that I came away feeling sad about the assassination of a president who has been gone for 150 years. The supporting cast is just terrific, particularly David Strathairn has Secretary of State William Seward. The costumes, sets and cinematography are bathed in authenticity. Many of the actors even look strikingly similar to their characters – see here for more on this.

The release of this film following the 2012 Presidential Election is poignant. Listening to the main players of the day debate about whether African Americans could ‘handle’ freedom, throws into sharp relief the fact that the current occupants of the White House are black. It underscores a point that politics aside, Obama’s presidency is a milestone in the history of race in this country.

But more interestingly to me was the dynamic between the parties – the more liberal Republican party and the stiffly conservative Democrats (oh how the tables have turned). The debates in the House of Representatives recalled a brutal, yet humorous rhetorical style, in many ways similar to what we see in today’s Congress (minus the humor). I wonder if folks will look back on the discourse taking place regarding same-sex marriage and wonder, wow those guys really didn’t get.

No doubt Oscar buzz will drive more people to see the movie in the coming months – but would suggest you guys get a head start and watch this film ASAP.

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