Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review: Lincoln: A President for the Ages

Lincoln: A President for the Ages, edited by Karl Weber (Public Affairs, 2012), paperback, 288 pages

In commenting upon Steven Spielberg's great film, Lincoln, many have noted its shrewd juxtaposition of Lincoln's approach to politics compared to the gridlock that is the hallmark of today's federal government.  By focusing on the Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, the movie portrays the 16th president pursuing a just cause -- in this case, the end of slavery -- through the imperfect and morally ambiguous tools of politics.  Conventional wisdom compares this to the current pattern of Washington DC, where any attempt to do something significant invariably devolves into petty finger-pointing and to dueling talking points in the press.

A companion to the film, Lincoln: A President for the Ages, produced by Participant Media and featuring a picture of actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln on the cover, has found an intriguing way to match this aspect of Spielberg's movie.  After introductory essays more closely tied to the film, its characters, and its themes, several Lincoln scholars are asked to consider how Lincoln might have faced subsequent challenges in American history.

Frequently, counter-factual history involves flights of fancy that veer towards the ridiculous.  Here, though, significant historians who have experience writing about Lincoln and his era offer speculations rooted in the 19th Century context of Lincoln's decisions and actions.  Three scholars consider Lincoln and the World War II era: Daniel Farber on executive power, James Takkach on the Hiroshima bomb, and Allen Guelzo on the end of the war.  Jean Baker explores Lincoln and women's suffrage, while Frank Williams imagines how Lincoln might approach the war on terror.  Two others consider Lincoln as public speaker and writer in today's media climate: Douglas Wilson on how Lincoln might shape public opinion with television and the Internet and Richard Carwardine on the specific issue of religious rhetoric.  And the ubiquitous Harold Holzer concludes the book with a look at Lincoln and the culture of celebrity.

By and large, each of these essays is strong and most take a similar approach.  After introducing their chosen anachronistic issue, the historians plumb the Lincoln record, describing how Lincoln approached similar issues in his own time, such as the development of military technology or Lincoln's calculated shaping of his public image.  This analysis is followed by consideration of how Lincoln might have reacted to those later issues.  Surprisingly, the most gingerly argument is made by Baker, who concludes that Lincoln could barely imagine women having the right to vote -- an issue one might reasonably assume Lincoln must actually have considered at some point in his life, as opposed to dropping an atomic bomb or dealing with television.

The opening chapters cover more expected ground in a movie companion-book.  The book's editor, Karl Weber, contributes an essay, "The Faces of Lincoln," which chronicles the physical portrayal of Lincoln in photographs during his lifetime and in other art forms, including movies, in the generations thereafter.  The actress Gloria Reuben, who portrays Mary Lincoln's confidant Elizabeth Keckley in Spielberg's movie, writes of her research and the process, and the deep emotion, of bringing the former slave turned businessswoman to the screen.  And, as the abolition of slavery is the central drama of the movie, it is appropriate that Henry Lewis Gates contributs an essay evaluating Lincoln and his approach to slavery and race relations; Gates has spent recent years considering this issue and his scholarship, along with his judicious approach, shine in the book's most sophisticated contribution.

Overall, the essays are interesting and informative.  The one exception is an interview with Andrew Ferguson, author of the highly enjoyable, Land of Lincoln, which considers the pervasive Lincoln in modern American culture.  Partially, this is due to the form: next to the other carefully crafted essays, the question and response format seems haphazard; mostly, though, it is due to Ferguson not offering much of interest in his answers.  Still, this is hardly reason to ignore the otherwise strong collection assembled here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book Review: My Thoughts Be Bloody

My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Nora Titone (Free Press, 2011) paperback, 484 pages

John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, is widely known to have been an actor.  In countless books, Booth's career has informed the retelling of the assassination and the surrounding conspiracy.  As an actor, Booth had a knowledge of the theater, which allowed him to plan his access to Lincoln, the timing of his act, and his escape.  More than this, though, there was a theatrical spectacle in the act, from the ambitious nature of the conspiracy to decapitate the government to Booth dramatically leaping from the president's box to the stage and uttering an exit line as he crossed the stage.

Despite his career as an actor and his relationship to the most famous acting family in 19th Century America, this aspect of Booth's life has been less explored by historians of Lincoln's assassination.  Nora Titone's recent joint biography of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is an important corrective.  Chronicling the life of the acting family sired (out of wedlock) by Junius Booth, it begins with the extramarital relationship that forced the senior actor to flee his native England for the United States and then documents the family's up and down fortunes until 1865, when John Wilkes would ignominiously establish the family name in history.

The well-researched and beautifully written book is rather uninterested in the mechanics of the conspiracy and assassination.  Instead, and most helpfully, it offers a vivid presentation of two significant contexts for John Wilkes Booth's life and character: the theater profession and his family dynamics.

Through the Booths, Titone explores the travails of being an actor in early 19th Century America.  As a whole, actors and theater workers had a poor reputation as lower class people with very questionable morals.  Further, it was a risky business financially.  For backstage workers and company actors, the pay was measly, and even for established actors, earnings were directly tied to ticket sales.  To earn enough to support a family generally required extensive touring and mounting multiple different productions in each city, which led Junius Booth and then his sons to be away from home for extended periods of time.

As a young teenager, Edwin Booth began accompanying his father on tour, mostly to ensure that the famous actor was not drinking too much or gambling and losing his earnings.  Thus began Edwin's apprenticeship, watching his father perform famous roles again and again, and then taking ever more important parts in these performances.  After the untimely death of Junius Booth, Edwin became the main breadwinner in the family as an actor, eventually establishing himself in New York City.

While Edwin Booth seemed to have received or learned his father's substantial theatrical gifts, it was the impulsive younger brother John Wilkes Booth who inherited his father's smoldering good looks.  Trading on his close resemblance to his father and on the Booth family name, John Wilkes worked hard to break into acting, with initially frustrating results.  Even as he depended on his brother Edwin's financial support, he chafed under his brother's refusals to help advance his career, which apparently stemmed from a combination of sibling rivalry, a fear of professional competition, and a recognition that John Wilkes was not very talented as an actor.

After the early years where Junius struggled to establish himself in the American theater, the narrative alternatively focuses on Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth.  Seemingly required to grow up more quickly, Edwin always seems the more complete figure, while an increasingly frustrated John Wilkes moved around the edges of Edwin's orbit.  While this likely is a reasonable assessment of the relationship between the two brothers and their very different professional experiences as actors, it also betrays that Titone's interest here lies mostly with Edwin, certainly an intriguing and attractive biographical figure in his own right.  This leads to a fascinating dismissive tone toward John Wilkes Booth from both older brother Edwin and historian Titone.

As a result, not all of the psychological motivations of the assassin are fully explored here.  John Wilkes Booth's political sensibilities seem to form haltingly towards supporting the Confederacy, partially in rebellion to Edwin's support of the Union, but his interaction with the Confederate Secret Service is barely mentioned.  Neither is there much attention to the other conspirators, though I must confess that Titone's assessment of Booth Achieves a breakthrough -- here the assassin seems to have a personality compatible with the almost comical misfits assembled for the plot (with the exception of John Surratt, who has always seemed the smartest of the bunch to me).

Instead, what emerges is the story of the petulant, overgrown teenager who wants to prove he is his own man, whether in pursuing acting in a rather haphazard way or in aggressively -- and imprudently -- voicing his political views.  Driven to desperate lengths to make his name, this man eventually assassinates Abraham Lincoln.  This portrait of immaturity and petulance largely matches the personality quirks that John Wilkes Booth displayed during the 12 days after the assassination, as he tried to escape.  It does not, though, offer sufficient insight into Booth's association with the Confederate Secret Service, or more importantly, their willingness to associate with him and trust him as an operative -- and there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest this is an important part of the story, as Edward Steers and others have argued.

Still, there is much here to recommend.  Despite the depth of research, the book is not dry or cumbersome.  Instead, it offers a compelling narrative more similar to a novel.  If it leaves questions about Booth's motives for assassinating Lincoln, it expertly demystifies key parts of his personality and life.  Instead of an actor playing a part (badly), here is a more nuanced and fleshed-out portrait of the man who would be Brutus.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Glowing Book Review in New York Times

In this weekend's book section, the Grey Lady offers a glowing book review of a new volume considering Abraham Lincoln as a moral philosopher.  The book, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict was published by Harvard's Belknap Press in December.  Written by John Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University (who appears to have rather broad academic interests), the 800+ page book revisits 1858 debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, evidently filtered through the moral philosophy lens of more recent thinkers like John Rawls.

The review by Steven Smith, a political science professor at Yale, positively compares Burt's tome to the classic 1959 study of the debates by Harry Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided.  He then goes on to show how each book draws upon different philosophers in considering the arguments of Lincoln and Douglas.

While this book may not be for everyone, those who are seriously interested in Lincoln's political arguments and intellectual legacy would seem to be a natural audience for this book.  And the strong review suggests that it will be well worthwhile.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Oscar, Oscar...

This morning, the Oscar nominations were announced.  As has been the case throughout the awards season so far, Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln has received the most nominations and hype among this year's films.  As ABC News has it, "Lincoln Leads the Way...."

I have not yet seen all of the nominated movies, so I cannot hazard a completely informed prediction.  But the fact that the movie has been so well received -- if you had told me, before it opened, that the film would earn more that $100 million in less than a month, I would not have laughed at you -- suggests that it has surpassed expectations by a lot.  This is more influential during awards season, especially in competitive years, and bodes well for some very good nights ahead for the film.

There is also the possibility, explored in some of the media coverage, of an unexpected timeliness to Lincoln.  While every generation seems to appropriate Lincoln into their own time, the story of a president dealing with a big issue with a contentious Congress seems a morality lesson given modern frustrations with the federal government.  This has been noticed even beyond our shores, as in an article this week in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, which considers "The Lure of Lincoln."

Thursday, November 29, 2012

How Accurate is Spielberg's "Lincoln"?

As I posted in my review of the new movie, I found the film to be amazingly accurate by Hollywood standards.  So I was intrigued to see comments on the film by two noted Lincoln authors, Matthew Pinsker and Allen Guelzo.

Guelzo's comments highlight some of the many accurate pieces of the film, including the spirit of Lincoln himself.  He is troubled by the "talkiness" of the movie.  Pinsker appreciates the movie, but is troubled by some of its inaccuracies and its simplification of history.

Both are generally correct in their assessments as historians, but I feel like they don't quite understand the possibilities and limitations of film.  Contrary to Pinsker, I am impressed by the sophistication of the storyline, which actually produces a fairly complete, if not fully nuanced, picture of the political realities faced by Lincoln.  In fact, I think this attempt at showing a more sophisticated picture, including the burden of the office beyond simply trying to pass the 13th Amendment, is why the film clocks in at well over 2 hours long.

Certainly there are inaccuracies in the movie, beyond conveniences like having Lincoln explicitly spell out to the Cabinet his underlying rationale for using the 13th Amendment to solve problems caused by executive assumption of war powers.  The Peterson House scene has significant problems in my mind -- the room is too big, Lincoln is in the bed wrong, Lincoln is dressed wrong -- and there is evidence that Lincoln handled military death cases in an established routine different from the late night reading depicted in the movie. 

But the film is hugely successful at exploring the nature of these people and the extraordinary time in which they lived.  While Pinsker is right to point out the confrontation between Lincoln and son Robert, I would argue that the scene is an accurate portrayal of certain key historical attributes -- the uneasy relationship between father and son, Lincoln's occasional flashes of temper (while Lincoln was notoriously lax in disciplining the children, there were exceptions, such as mistreatment of animals, that kindled his anger), Lincoln's defensiveness of Mary, to name a few.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Movie Review: "Lincoln" (2012)

After more than a decade of gestation, Steven Spielberg's bio-pic of Abraham Lincoln, based (as the credits say, "in part") on Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling book Team of Rivals, offers a sympathetic and humanizing portrait of the 16th President.  The 2 1/2 hour film, which takes place entirely during the final four months of Lincoln's life, focuses on the contentious debate in the House of Representatives over the proposed 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, including how it might affect efforts to encourage the Confederates to surrender.

Rather directly, the movie seeks to explore the man behind the monuments and myths.  Much like the famous Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, where Daniel Chester French's massive marble Lincoln sits between full-text inscriptions of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, Spielberg's movie opens with the war-time president talking with two African-American Union soldiers, who begin reciting the Gettysburg Address, and concludes with the last third of the Second Inaugural.

With these speeches and snippets of surrounding dialogue, screenwriter Tony Kushner bookends the film with the common schoolhouse portrait of Lincoln.  Between the famous words and their magnanimity, though, Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose previous film experience was scripting Spielberg's 2005 movie "Munich," breathes life into the mythic figure.  Through personal interactions with his family, encounters with common soldiers and citizens, and meetings with other government leaders and generals, Lincoln here is funny, passionate, beaten down, wise, cunning, and occasionally misunderstood and unapproachable.

Central to this is two-time Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, who almost certainly will be nominated again for his performance.  In addition to the brilliant make-up artistry that makes Day-Lewis look uncannily like the often-photographed Lincoln throughout, the famously intense method actor inhabits the role fully, with wit, determination, quiet intelligence, weariness, and a surprising steadiness that manifests itself, intriguingly, in the ease of a man completely comfortable with himself in every situation he faces, whether political, military, or personal.  

Much will likely be made of the high voice Day-Lewis employs, especially by those who have heard actors portray Lincoln with rich baritone voices on television and in previous movies -- or even at Disney's Hall of Presidents.  However, Day-Lewis has relied on the surviving testimony about Lincoln's voice, which says that Lincoln had a high voice, sometimes almost squeaky, and spoke with a Western twang that always turned words like "scared" into "skeered."  (Personally, I think that the voice Day-Lewis uses is a bit more polished than I imagine from contemporary descriptions of Lincoln, but it is clear that the actor has skillfully crafted his performance from these descriptions.)

A key insight into Lincoln's character in this film, and the point at which the movie "Lincoln" is closest to the spirit of Team of Rivals, is that much is revealed through Lincoln's interactions with other equally strong people.  One of the many strengths of Kushner's fine screenplay is the character development of those around Lincoln, especially his wife Mary, son Robert, Secretary of State William Seward, and influential Republican patriarch Preston Blair, but also of other identifiable historic figures with less screen time.

Spielberg has cast strong actors to portray these many roles, and the ensemble gives consistently excellent performances.  While Tommy Lee Jones perhaps has the showiest supporting role as the outspoken Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook (a portrayer of Lincoln himself on stage and screen) find authenticity as Seward and Blair, respectively.  The most surprising supporting performance, owing in equal parts to the strength of Kushner's script as to the acting, is Sally Field as Mary Lincoln.  Although she is too old for the character (which is noticeable given that most of the other actors are pretty close to the age of the historic figures they portray), she not only gracefully embodies the First Lady's contradictory personality traits, she demonstrates some of the gifts -- noticeably a passion, and relative skill, for politics -- that must have served as the foundation for the lasting, though sometimes stormy, marriage between Abraham and Mary Lincoln.

Such character details, too many to mention, are but one aspect of the depth of research evident in virtually every aspect of the film.  While there are a few mistakes and inaccuracies, the movie is overwhelmingly rooted in well-documented details -- a point made clear in the credits where more than a dozen noted Lincoln and Civil War historians are thanked for their assistance.  From the set design -- including an amazing recreation of Lincoln's White House office -- to the period music incorporated into John Williams' outstanding score to the frequent inclusion of contemporary-recorded comments in the screenplay to the  appearance, dress, and accents of the large supporting cast (even those with few lines), the film is consistently, and by Hollywood standards almost fanatically, accurate.

Even the feel of the movie points to this historical accuracy, which is a credit to Spielberg.  Unlike some films "based on historic events" that simplify characters and plot details for clarity, there is a complexity, even messiness, to "Lincoln" that evokes the turbulence of January 1865.  At times dialogue is overlapping or even muttered inaudibly, and there are disorienting, quick emotional shifts from the deadly serious to the ridiculous, as when yet another public reception painfully reminds both Lincolns of their son Willie's death during a previous formal White House dinner, but they must they must immediately happily welcome their guests in a receiving line.

With the usual top-notch production values of a Spielberg movie, added to Kushner's strong screenplay and the excellent acting ensemble headed by Day-Lewis, "Lincoln" is a remarkable film.  Despite its short time span, it has an epic vision of the personalities and circumstances surrounding the central figure.  And in the midst of those dramatic circumstances, it offers a compelling and vivid presentation of Lincoln the man, quirky and wise, compassionate and irreverent, and in some ways more impressive than even the marble statues.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Trailer Released for Spielberg's "Lincoln"

Earlier this evening, the official trailer for Steven Spielberg's long-awaited "Lincoln" premiered online (with a special online event featuring the director and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Robert Lincoln in the film).

Overall, it certainly looks impressive (and sounds impressive, with that sweeping music playing underneath).  I was pleasantly surprised at the scope implied by the trailer.  Previous films about Lincoln (with much smaller casts) always had a pretty quaint feel, but this is evidently an epic where dozens of important people will surround the president at the center of the storm.

Among the locations/events I could identify in the trailer, aside from scenes of Lincoln in the White House: Lincoln with the troops (probably in late March 1865), the fall of Richmond and Lincoln's subsequent visit, the Hampton Roads conference (led by Lincoln and Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens), debate (over the 13th Amendment?) in the House of Representatives, the Second Inaugural Address, the surrender of Robert E. Lee (at which Robert Lincoln was present), and the War Department Telegraph Office.

Only one thing bothers me in the trailer -- but it is a big thing.  I'm not convinced that Daniel Day-Lewis has gotten Lincoln's voice right.  The descriptions of it that survive imply that Lincoln had a rather high-pitched voice and that he never really lost his Kentucky -- or frontier -- twang.  While the actor is certainly speaking in a higher range, I hear very little twang and very little of the slightly shrill quality sometimes ascribed to it.  (One newspaper report famously had Lincoln beginning a speech, "Meester Cheerman.")  Daniel Day-Lewis' approach sounds to me like a flat Hoosier accent, which does not match any of the contemporary descriptions of Lincoln's voice.  Hopefully this is too short a sample of dialogue in the trailer, but it concerns me because I had high hopes that the notoriously precise actor would offer a definitive performance.

[You can read more about Lincoln's speaking voice from Harold Holzer here.  He compares the description of Lincoln's voice to Kathryn Hepburn, which seems very a propos to me.]

Aside from this, though, I am pleasantly surprised by the trailer, which suggests that the project is more ambitious than I had imagined.  More than this, the focus on race implies that screenwriter Tony Kushner has perhaps crafted a narrative arc from the debate over the 13th Amendment to Lincoln's April 11 speech, in which he suggests granting voting rights to African-Americans who have served in the Union army and navy, which would offer a new perspective on the more often-told Lincoln stories.  I'm sure there will be a few more clues before the film is released in two months.