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In the Suburbs / A genius brings Lincoln to life

Updated 1:14 pm, Thursday, January 3, 2013
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About two months ago, I heard a powerful National Public Radio interview with Daniel Day-Lewis, star of the new movie "Lincoln." The movie was scheduled to come out soon after, and this gifted actor spoke about his journey to become "the man" most responsible for ending slavery.

I was particularly struck by Lewis' depth of research into Lincoln's voice -- there were no recordings, according to the actor, so he had to select a voice that probably sounded like Lincoln did. He chose to be decisive but soft-spoken and slow to anger. Lewis also described Lincoln mannerisms he adopted and anecdotes he focused on to add credibility to his performance.

My wife and I went to see the film on New Year's Day -- the 150th anniversary of the day the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, a day called Jubilee. We didn't so much watch "Lincoln" as experience it. For just under three hours, we were riveted to the screen as an acting genius portrayed this larger than-life man.

We were touched by all the dimensions Day-Lewis brought to the Lincoln character.

As husband to Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field; he responded to her emotional unraveling, especially over the death of their son, William.

As father to their youngest son, Tad, his compassion was tremendous. I shed tears at one point when Lincoln found Tad asleep, lay down next to the boy and gently kissed his head before scooping him into his arms and taking him off to bed.

I was moved again by Lincoln's visits with the war-weary troops in the Civil War. Here, he was called upon to be another kind of father, representing a nation grieving over the deaths of its many sons.

While Day-Lewis also captured the president's humorous side throughout the movie, his overall focus was on Lincoln's relentless drive early in 1865 -- the beginning of his second term -- to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. As the Civil War raged on outside of Washington, Lincoln and his cabinet -- along with a seemingly less-than-ethical crew of characters hired by the secretary of state -- tried to sway reluctant, apathetic and even nay saying members of House of Representatives.

Lincoln knew that the Emancipation Proclamation was only a Band-Aid fix for slavery. He really wanted to accomplish the final passage of the 13th amendment, which promised to abolish slavery while leaving room for slavery to be applied as punishment for anyone who committed a crime.

I was amazed at how similar the in-fighting and passion about this amendment were to what has been taking place in our current Senate and House of Representatives.

My wife said that she thought director Steven Spielberg had actually taken the movie to Congress last week in an effort to show historical similarities in the Fiscal Cliff battle and the battle for freeing the slaves (actually, it was on Dec. 19).

While Lewis' performance as Lincoln was the most memorable for me, Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of the cantankerous and powerful Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was also powerful...

A story by Colin Covert in the Minneapolis Star Tribune said, "Jones nearly eclipses the nominal hero."

The Jones character, Covert wrote, "was Lincoln's temperamental opposite and tactical antagonist as both sought to free the oppressed. Jones' bullying and sarcastic eloquence counterbalance the folksy humanity of Daniel Day-Lewis' pragmatic Lincoln, each delivering a searching character study of complex men for complex times."

Covert also quotes from Jones talking about the film's significance.

"I hope no one takes it strictly as a history lesson," he said. "There's much more to the movie than that. It gives you an opportunity to think about the fact that politics is still dirty. And that great things are done by people, working hard. Great things are not hurled from the heavens like lightning bolts by an old man with a gray beard in a white robe. They don't spring from the earth full blown. Great things are the achievement of sometimes lowly people working very hard."

I couldn't agree more.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.