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A Cinematic Time Machine
by Jon Schuller

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The motion picture camera was invented by several men in the latter part of the 19th Century and rapidly gained popularity as the 20th Century began. Thomas Edison is generally accepted as the man who made the most of the new phenomenon even though he literally stole the ideas from other inventors (please see my column, An Unsung Cinema Hero 2/28/11). As the machine became a universal tool for recording everyday events it took on added significance as it recorded world events, like wars or elections in real time. People around the world were, for the first time in history, able to see things only previously reported in newspapers or books. Everyone could glimpse the lives of the famous and the ordinary as they sat in the new movie theatres (nickelodeons) springing up everywhere. Still photography had been doing this job since the 1830s and '40s but of course still photography was a cumbersome, time-consuming process: the cameras were large and bulky, the chemicals dangerous and facilities for developing the film few and far between. Matthew Brady gained instant fame as he recorded the horrors of the Civil War battlefields and the famous men who guided soldiers on to those battlefields. Civilians had never seen anything like that before in history. Imagine a motion picture camera being available in those years instead of the still camera?

The joys of reading historical novels and non-fiction is trying to imagine what went through the characters' minds, how they looked or spoke as they lived events or made them happen. One of history's most written-about men is Abraham Lincoln, the President during
America's bloody, divisive Civil War. A modest man, a wilely opponent to his political foes, a devoted husband and father, Lincoln was elected President in 1860 as the United States was split in two by the establishment of the Confederate States of America. The issue of "slave states" versus "free states" eventually drove the (mainly) Southern states to secede from the Union and become a separate country. This problem had been part of the country from its birth in 1776 and over the decades simmering hostilities and arguments, both for and against slavery, pushed America to the brink of war. As new territories applied to become states the slavery issue reared its head and riots would break out. A good example was Kansas in the 1850s as it soon became "Bloody Kansas" with pro-slavery advocates battling with abolitionists in the streets and towns. In many cases the Supreme Court would rule on how the state would enter the Union, thus fortifying both sides for further fights. The ultimate fight became the Civil War. Lincoln took over the White House as South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor a mere three months later in April, 1861. The die was cast.

Steven Spielberg's latest film, Lincoln, is based on (in part) Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. We see the last four months of Lincoln's life starting in January, 1865, as the Civil War is finally coming to a close and the President, just re-elected in 1864, trying to push through a constitutional amendment to end America's slavery permanently. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the
beleaguered President, aged as never before as he has guided the war against the Confederacy and wrestled with opponents within and outside of his Republican Party. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, his troubled wife, who berates him almost daily for his commitments to the country while (in her mind) ignoring his family's problems. His is a daily balancing act more challenging than any circus high-wire artist. He is surrounded by many other politicians who have self-interests that sometimes conflict with their sworn duties to the country. The President's cabinet is loyal to him and we see Secretary of State, William Seward (ably played by Davis Strathairn) who works the back channels of money and influence to get Congressmen to change their votes and back the 13th Amendment. Ending the Civil War and bringing the Confederate States back into the Union will certainly defeat the amendment. The delicate balance of both negotiations has to be handled quickly and effectively. Lincoln maneuvers the southern peace delegation to wait outside Washington, D.C., so he can claim to recalcitrant Congressmen he knows nothing about a peace overture from the Confederacy.

Mr. Spielberg has assembled a stunning cast of actors to bring the various characters to life. I was amazed at the choice of actors who actually looked like the real-life men surrounding Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones plays the radical Republican Congressional abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair; Bruce McGill as Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton; James Spader as William N. Bilbo; Jackie Earle Hailey as Confederate States
Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. But it's Daniel Day-Lewis who, by all accounts looks (and apparently from historical sources) and even sounds like the 16th President. The audience witnesses conversations, arguments and private moments, like those between Lincoln and Mary Todd, that look and sound authentic. His fights with Congressmen, his back-room deals, complete with cigar smoke, and his visits to battlefields and hospitals, make this man, steeped in legend, a real person. Spielberg has given us a glimpse into a tumultuous time in American history, previously documented in hundreds of books but not really seen on film quite this way.

If there had been movie cameras in January, 1865, I believe they would have recorded scenes as we view in this movie. The accuracy of the dialogue, the interplay between the men and their opponents, the tragic family problems played out inside the White House all look and feel so authentic you may feel, as I did when I saw the picture, that you've become a witness to history, real American history. Everything about the film (I noticed the thick pall of cigar smoke leaving the rooms as the actors exited from them) is so real, so genuine you almost believe you're there with them. There have been many other movies about Abraham Lincoln (just think of Raymond Massey or Henry Fonda's portrayals) but this one is different, unencumbered by legends or previous interpretations. What goes on in today's White House and the halls of Congress contains no less dramatic, life-changing events, affected and influenced by men and women, than those of one hundred and fifty years ago.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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