I did not know of today’s anniversary when we watched the DVD of Lincoln last night. I also did not know that Lincoln was shot only 5 days later on Good Friday. He died Saturday morning. It probably was a different date than the Orthodox Great and Holy Friday and Holy Saturday.
How to take these dates? Surrender and Assassination during western Holy Week? Repentance and Christ-like martyrdom? I think the movie leans a bit towards hagiography, mostly reflected in his admirers’ eyes, but it mostly humanized Honest Abe. It also gave those with other points of view a voice, for which I am grateful. I think its portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln embodies the other voice, but it is also heard in the brutality of the first scene, the body count, and the Vice President of the South, Alexander Hamilton Stephen’s (well-played by Jackie Earle Haley, Mooch in 1981’s Breaking Away), eyes and statements at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference. But the tension about the passage of the 13th Amendment had risen so high by that point that abolition-at-all costs people would just see his speech as an obstacle.
But Mary Todd Lincoln was a mentally ill spiritualist, you say. How can she have a legitimate voice? She was a mother who lost three of her four children. She said that if their son, Robert Todd Lincoln, went to war, where she believed he would be killed, she would never forgive Lincoln. It was hypocritical of Lincoln to keep his son from war when he ordered hundreds of thousands to give their sons’ lives. He must not have believed it was worth his son’s life, and that puts his justifications into question. But when Mary is caving into her grief and guilt analysis over Willie’s death, Lincoln comforts and strengthens her by saying, “Don’t. It’s too hard.” And that is probably what the movie does with the blame for slavery and the deaths in the Civil War, “Don’t, it’s too hard.”
The reason I want to watch it again is that it did not dwell too much on the gruesomeness, but on the conversations and speeches by those who made the decisions. I can’t re-watch The Passion of Christ, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List not just because I’m squeamish, but because I believe it is a violation to portray it in your face that way. Death is humiliating and that is why we need to give those who experience it some space. Witnessing the brutality of killing can also be voyeuristic. I liked how this movie kept it mostly behind closed doors. Let the close family and friends deal with their dead in protected privacy.
Back to the conversations and speeches. They spoke so much better back then! That was the age of Dickens, Dostoyevsky and co., and the screenplay reflected it. The actors delivered their very clever and witty lines with such convincing accents and such great rhythm. I am amazed that a modern movie making team could recreate 1860’s language and thought so convincingly.