Mixed reaction to the shooting of 'Lincoln'


Say what you like about Abraham Lincoln, he never used a teleprompter. Or had to deal with the head of the CIA having an extra-marital affair. He only had to deal with the American civil war and the abolition of slavery; happy days.

One of the striking things about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was previewed here in San Francisco at the weekend and will go on general release in north America this Friday, was how completely wretched Lincoln and his wife Mary were: his back seems bowed by both domestic and national tragedy.

Daniel Day Lewis plays Lincoln and Sally Field, beating her natural hysteria into ploughshares, plays Mary Todd Lincoln.

“Oh, she was crazy,” said American friends afterwards, as they punched their iPhones to find out if Lincoln had been the tallest of all the American presidents – he tied with Lyndon Johnson at 6ft 4in.

But poor Mary Todd Lincoln lost three of her four sons before she died, not to mention being beside her husband when he was murdered.

You have to say that if you weren’t crazy when you started out – and Mary may have been what is nowadays called bipolar- you’d be crazy when you finished.

Her spending alone was enough to raise eyebrows in Washington, and she did go in for public outbursts, but actually both the Lincolns were sniffed at because they were out-of-towners.

No one’s interested in rehabilitating Mary Lincoln – the American friends had moved to looking up Marfan’s syndrome on their iPhones.

Lincoln may have had Marfan’s syndrome, a disease of the connective tissue apparently, which makes you very tall and thin.

But there will never be an easy explanation, medical or otherwise, for this man who seems to have been a political saint, and is certainly portrayed as one here. Of course, it’s a good time to release a film about a political saint now that the election is over.

This was Veterans’ Day weekend if one can put it like that. Yesterday was Veteran’s Day across America, falling as it does on November 11th. Today is the public holiday for Veterans’ Day.

The cinema was packed for the screening at 3.30pm on Saturday; even the front row was full. Outside the queue for the 4.30pm screening already contained about 20 people.

I sat between a white lady who laughed at all of Lincoln’s jokes and seemed to be enjoying the film immensely. And a black lady, who fell asleep a couple of times.

I must say that I would be on her side in this. First of all Americans get up very early and are inclined to nod off during the day. And, secondly, Lincoln, like its subject, is pretty long. It lasts for

2½ hours and is full of old white guys with a lot of facial hair being very self-important while the black people do little more than look lovingly at Lincoln as he solves all their problems for them.

To a non- American Lincoln is the ugly side of costume drama partly because even the interior décor of the time was awful, all swathes of fabric and gee-gaws and baubles, and partly because the costumes of the time were so appallingly unattractive for both sexes. Downton Abbey it ain’t.

It is a terrible thing to see a man as beautiful as Daniel Day Lewis in one of those awful stovepipe hats. But, of course, he is the image of Lincoln – scarily so. And the audience loved Daniel, giving the film, in which he is virtually never off the screen, a gentle round of applause at the end.

For the rest of us it is interesting to watch a political drama which relies on pencils, telegraph operators and open fires as its up-to-th- minute technology. The film is set in the winter of 1864, and Daniel Day Lewis is occasionally seen wrapped in a variety of shawls.

And it is always nice to see smoking on screen when the actors actually inhale : David Strathairn, who plays secretary of state William Seward, and Jared Harris, who plays General Ulysses S Grant, both manage this very well.

The cast is first rate, although it is notable that all the best known actors are on Lincoln’s side of the house. Hal Holbrook plays Preston Blair, one of the founders of the Republican party. Holbrook is a wonderful actor, whatever he does, and strangely enough he once played Lincoln himself.

But none of this really matters when you consider the enthralled silence in which the film was heard. This is a seminal story in American history. It is grim viewing when you consider the jails currently crammed with African American young men, and all the other obscenities of racism that have been endured, and still endure, since Lincoln’s time.

But there is now also an African American president, about to enjoy his second term. There are quite a few knowing laughs in Lincoln about the unlikeliness of Negroes or women ever getting the vote; no one ever imagined a black president, who would take Lincoln as his role model, or one of them at any rate.

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