Lots To Love In ‘Lincoln’

As is often the case, we’re operating in a bit of a time warp.

You have known for nearly a week, who has won the various Oscars, from the 86th Academy Awards, but I’m writing this before the awards will be announced.

It seemed only appropriate that an arts column should feature the Oscars, but to wait until they’ve been announced for more than two weeks seems foolish, as does trying to guess how the votes will come in, so I looked over the list of the winners for 2013, and selected a film which won several awards, and resolved to write this week’s column about that film, as a tribute to the Oscars.

I’m sure nobody is ever 100 percent thrilled with the results of the competition, but we all enjoy seeing Hollywood’s larger than life performers, decked out in clothes and jewelry worth more than most of us can imagine, and it is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the art of filmmaking.

The film which I selected from last year’s winners is ”Lincoln,” a remarkable creation by Steven Spielberg. ”Lincoln” won the Best Actor Oscar for English-born actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrayed the president. The film also won an Oscar for Production Design.

The film isn’t really a biography of our 16th president. It is instead an examination of the last four months of his life, during which time the Confederate States of America surrendered, bringing to an end the horrible bloodletting of the U.S. Civil War, and both houses of Congress were convinced to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which put an official end to the practice of slavery in our nation.

Even the president’s assassination is given only a few minutes at the end of the film. What Spielberg seems to be doing, instead is to focus on the turmoil and confusion which have always been part of our nation’s history. Once things make it into the history books, it all seems so calm and regular: Lincoln was born in 1809 and was elected twice to office. That’s logical and neat, but, by itself, it doesn’t realistically portray his accomplishments.

When you look at the insanity which seems to pour out of Washington, D.C., and even the state capitals today, it makes history seem more moral and sensible. Probably the biggest reason for this is that the various parties and interest groups of years past, didn’t have their own 24-hour television networks, pouring out the inventions and the accusations and trying to keep the public afraid and playing to their lowest instincts, in the hope of maintaining both the stations’ own ratings, and their connected parties’ agendas.

”Lincoln” shows us that politics were every bit as irrational and as dirty and as determined to hoodwink the public as politics are today. They just didn’t have as effective tools to do it all with, back then.

The film is based upon the book ”Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, which deals not only with Lincoln, but with the members of his cabinet, including former Westfield resident William H. Seward, who was Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

Most of the men in Lincoln’s cabinet had run against him for the office, or were connected to rival politicians and/or political causes. Goodwin’s book attests to both the genius to choose such talented, but diverse men, and the leadership skills needed to manage these men, to whom he had given enormous power, and whose use of that power had to be kept under strict control.

The trouble with a democratically-based government is that the public doesn’t always take the time and the trouble to learn all the facts about issues. Just as an example, my wife and I had dinner at a local restaurant, not long ago, and spent the meal trying not to listen to the spray of nonsense which was being released by a man at a neighboring table, who was loudly preaching on the subject of how the government ought to run, based on a complex list of untruths and truly irrational logic, which an attentive student in sixth grade could have refuted.

There are times when our leaders must fulfill their responsibility to represent the will of the people who elected them, and times when they must do what they understand to be the right thing, even though the public doesn’t understand yet – and may never understand – why that is the right thing to do.

That is demonstrated brilliantly in the film ”Lincoln,” and can be applied to other conflicts, throughout our history, up to the present day.


I wonder why filmmakers so often choose people who are of other nationalities than the characters which they are hired to play. Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, was born in England, and has chosen to become a citizen of Ireland. It’s possible that Spielberg could have found an American to play Lincoln, although he would have had a fiercely difficult time finding anyone who could have played him better.

Day-Lewis is better looking than Lincoln was. That is a handicap, because physically attractive people often have an easier time convincing others, than do those who are not attractive. The balance he strikes in the performance, between the idealist who risks his presidency to free the slaves, and the pragmatist who offered government jobs to congressmen who voted the way he wished, is beautifully drawn.

Sally Field was a brilliant casting as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Field has had a career of playing cute little parts, like the student teacher in the television series ”Room 222,” and the nun whose elaborate habit and headdress allows her to fly like Superman, in ”The Flying Nun.” Certainly, she has played more serious parts, but here, she has allowed herself to be made up and costumed as an old woman. Many actors, both men and women, would fight to retain as much of their beauty as possible, which she clearly has not done.

Many people are forced by life to choose between doing a good job with their careers and doing a good job as a member of a family. The Lincolns left their 12-year-old son Willie with a nursemaid and attended a political function, and returned to find their son had died, probably of typhoid fever, for example. In the film, his wife suggests to the president that he had neglected her and the needs of his family, to run the country, and unless viewers of the film know about the family’s history, the rightness of her accusation might not be understood.

The president’s political enemies had made constant attacks on Mrs. Lincoln, criticizing her household accounts and how much money she spent on gloves, for example, although it was her family’s money and not government money which she spent. She was often criticized and made the butt of ridicule, which didn’t reduce her inclination to clinical depression, and she was injured in a carriage accident which probably was an assassination attempt upon her husband.

The Lincolns’ oldest son, Robert Lincoln, both felt himself and was often upbraided by others, including total strangers, for the fact that his father’s signature was on the draft notices of thousands upon thousands of men, while he remained a private citizen. Lincoln understood his son’s feelings. He also understood that to send his son into battle would make the young man a target for the enemy to kidnap or kill, and would subject the men serving around him to far greater danger. He also understood that to some degree, that was a rationalization for his desire to protect his son.

The central thrust of the film is that representatives of the Confederate States of America made an offer to lay down their weapons and put an end to the war, if the government would agree to allow slavery to continue. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1862, but contrary to popular understanding, it did not free the country’s slaves. The proclamation freed slaves in any state which was at war with the U.S. Government. There were a number of states which had slaves, but which had not seceded from the U.S., the most important of which, to the government’s way of seeing, was Maryland.

Maryland borders Washington, D.C., on the east, the north and the west. Since the Confederate State of Virginia formed the fourth border of the capital, the city was in real danger of being taken over by its enemies. Getting the president and the congress out of Washington, through many miles of enemy territory, or managing to feed and supply them if they stayed in place was a horrible risk. So, slaves in Maryland and other border states remained slaves until the passage of the13th Amendment to the Constitution, in January of 1865.

Lincoln freed some of the slaves, but he suspected that once peace was declared, courts would rule that his power to emancipate slaves had ended with the fighting. He was determined to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would end slavery, and which could not be overruled by the courts. When Congress wouldn’t cooperate, he used his executive powers to bypass them, and he concealed the South’s offered end to the war until the 13th Amendment was signed into law.

The film is full of characters such as Edmund Stanton and Thaddeus Stevens, who were important parts of history, and who play important roles in the film, but who aren’t explained or introduced to the audience of the film. Spielberg asks us to grasp that the president had supporters and opponents all around him, and even professional historians can spend the rest of their lives figuring out who these men were and what their role was in history, but there isn’t time in the passage of one movie, to deal with it all.

Nothing is flawless, including this film, but I think it portrays the realities of political situations better than all the ranting which goes on news broadcasts today. Other members of the cast who are worthy of mention for their portrayals include David Strathairn as Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, James Spader as a vote buyer – today we’d say lobbyist – and Hal Holbrook as one of the founders of the Republican Party who thought that ending the slaughter of the war was more important than freeing the slaves, and Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who thought freeing the slaves was the moral thing to do and any compromise with that goal was betrayal and sin.

There have been times – often not as long ago as it seems, today – when the majority of the people in our country thought that African Americans were biologically inferior and could not be trusted with citizenship or holding office. The same was believed, during the lifetimes of my parents, about women. Sadly, some people still think so.

There have been state laws which prohibited Roman Catholics from voting and in a number of situations, which did the same for Jews. I know of one movement to declare Lincoln a national hero, who could not legally be opposed or disparaged. That would make this film a crime.

Hollywood turns out a great many films which are plain and simply horrible. Fortunately, sometimes it makes a ”Lincoln,” as well. Whoever wins the Oscars, we have many brilliant films to see and to learn from.

The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet will perform in the Rosch Recital Hall, on the campus of the State University of New York at Fredonia, April 4 at 8 p.m.

Their program is said to range in style from Bluegrass to Bach. Tickets are $30 for the general public, and $12 for students with I.D.

Performing with the quartet will be the Fredonia Guitar Ensemble.

To purchase tickets, phone 673-3501, or go to their website at www.fredonia.edu/tickets/.

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The Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is preparing an April launch for their 2014 season of plays and performances. If you’re free to visit the festival in April and May, the festival is offering a number of performances for which tickets may be purchased for $39, in Canadian funds, if your home address is in one of the counties of New York state which border on Ontario. Student prices are even less.

For more information, phone the festival at 800-511-7429 or visit their website at www.shawfest.com.

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Speaking of the great Canadian theater festivals, the Stratford Festival has announced that the advanced sale of tickets for the coming season is progressing so strongly that they have already decided to put into effect additional performances of several of their productions. That’s a healthy sign.

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Through March 30, Buffalo’s Road Less Travelled Productions will present a production of the play ”An Iliad,” by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson.

For additional information or to purchase tickets, phone 903-9936 or visit the company’s website at www.roadlesstravelledproductions.org. The company performs in the Market Film and Performance complex, on Main Street, in the Buffalo Theater District. It is located directly across Main Street from Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

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Through March 30, the Kavinoky Theatre Company will perform a production of David Lindsay-Abair’s contemporary play ”Good People.” The company performs in their own facility, on the campus of D’Youville College, on Porter Avenue, in Buffalo.

The play deals with a young woman who has become so financially desperate, she has determined to look up a former beau, who has gone on to success, in the hope of re-establishing their relationship and saving herself, thereby.

Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., plus matinee performances at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $39 for the general public, with discounts available for senior citizens, students, active members of the U.S. military, and groups. To purchase tickets, or for more information, phone 829-7668 or visit the company’s website at www.kavinokytheatre.com.

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Also through March 30, the MusicalFare company of Buffalo will perform a production of ”Red,” which deals with the artist Mark Rothko. The performances will not take place in the company’s regular performance space, in Amherst, but will be performed at 710 Main St., the former Studio Arena Theatre, at the intersection of Main Street, and Tupper Street, in the Downtown Buffalo Theater District.

Tickets are $40 for the general public, at $16.50 for students, with identification. To purchase them, phone 800-745-3000, or visit the Ticketmaster website at www.ticketmaster.com.

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Through March 23, Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre Company will perform a production of the play ”Stones in His Pockets,” by Marie Jones. The play has two actors, who play a total of 14 different roles.

The plot concerns a small town in rural Ireland, which is selected to be the site for the filming of a major Hollywood motion picture, inspiring the local population to imagine stardom and international success, or at least big payments for land rental and part time labor.

Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., plus matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $39 for the general public. Senior citizens may purchase tickets to Sunday matinees for $35. Phone 853-ICTC or visit the company’s website at www.irishclassicaltheatre.com. The company performs in the Andrews Theatre, at 625 Main St., in the Downtown Buffalo Theatre District.

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Tonight at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m., the Department of Theater and Dance at the University at Buffalo will perform a production of William Shakespeare’s play ”The Tempest.”

Tickets are $20 for the general public, and $10 for senior citizens and students. Purchase them by phoning 888-223-6000 or by computer at www.ubcfa.org.

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March 20-30, the theater department of Niagara University, in Lewiston, will present a production of William Shakespeare’s ”A Comedy of Errors.”

Performances will take place in the Leary Theatre, inside Clune Hall, on the university’s campus. Tickets cost $15 for the general public, and $10 for senior citizens and students, with identification. To purchase them, phone 286-8685, and leave a voice mail message, which will be answered promptly, or send an email to theatre@niagara.edu.

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Wednesday from 7-9 p.m., three of the artists whose work is currently on display at the 3rd on 3rd Gallery, from the Women Create Exhibit will discuss their work and answer questions from the public, at the gallery.

Similar salons will be held each Wednesday evening, throughout the Exhibit.