Lincoln: The Movie

· The kernel of my reaction—I’ll watch it more than once in the movie theater, and will also buy a copy of the DVD for my home theater. I can’t endorse a film anymore than that. Go see it. (when you’re done reading these bullet points, be sure to watch my video entitled “Lincoln and Me, Lincoln and You”–you’ll find it in the video section of my website)

· I was excited about this film from the first moment that I knew Daniel Day-Lewis had signed on to play the lead role. In my mind, that fact meant the movie had great potential.

· Day-Lewis gives an Oscar-winning performance (I’ve always wanted to write that!). I’ll never think of Lincoln at the movies as anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s like John Wayne with Rooster Cogburn or Marlon Brando as the Godfather. Day-Lewis perfectly captures Lincoln’s humor, cleverness, gentleness, and compassion. Regarding humor, he shows that some people could become frustrated with Lincoln’s passion for storytelling. There were times in his life when his love of funny stories got him in trouble. His natural humor and his desire to share it could, occasionally, suggest that he was superficial. This tells you something about the role of your personal strengths. Some situations will arise where your strength becomes your weakness.

· Tommy Lee Jones does an outstanding job as well but I think part of the connection of his character to the audience comes from the modernistic feel of his role. His character of Thaddeus Stevens behaves in ways that look very familiar to 21st century audiences. Now that I’m thinking of it, he’d be a big hit on either Fox or MSNBC. I won’t spoil it by elaborating.

· Sally Field handled an almost thankless role with grace and power. Mary Todd Lincoln is not a person to whom many of us gravitate. We need to remember that for much of their married life Abraham and Mary were very connected, each helping the other. Mary was quite protective of her husband’s political abilities and political career.

· To me, the biggest pleasant surprise was James Spader. I think he must thoroughly enjoy the nature of the role that he had in this film. It just seemed to fit him.

· From my perspective the two most remarkable scenes of the movie were the heated argument between Abraham and Mary, along with the cut-back shots between Abraham and Tad while the final vote on the 13th Amendment was being tallied. It’s hard for many current-day Americans to imagine that a constitutional amendment can have such substantive as well as symbolic power in life. Such was the 13th Amendment for Lincoln, for black slaves, and for the American experiment.

· Speaking of that vote-counting scene, I couldn’t help but think of the final vote-counting scene on the Declaration of Independence in the musical 1776. Real drama in both films. By the way, Lincoln was intimately linked to the Declaration and to the Founding Fathers. He saw nearly every action he took as president and politician through the lens of the nation’s founding in 1776 and the American Revolution.

· Three things that I think will jar modern viewers. One is Lincoln’s voice as done by Day-Lewis. It’s not the bass or baritone that you’d assume. Day-Lewis’s work on the voice reflects contemporary accounts of what Lincoln sounded like. Second and perhaps less noticed is Day-Lewis’s walk, his gait. It’s plodding and heavy-footed, again, much like the descriptions of folks who knew Lincoln best. Third, and I’m just being honest, is the unvarnished use of the “n” word. I suppose the only places in 21st century America where you’ll hear it so directly is at either attending a KKK rally or listening to a rap song. (There’s a sad commentary.) I’m guessing that word slams into the ears of many members of the movie audience.

· I also wonder if audiences will be shocked to learn that Lincoln was a politician. He had been one his entire adult life. From a leadership perspective, I’ve always thought that a key component of Lincoln was his penchant for having people who strongly disliked him become some of his greatest admirers after they had spent time with him. That’s a good standard for you and me to use in measuring the effects of our leadership. Do our adversaries think better of us after they know us?

· I’m struck by the thread in the story of Lincoln as tragic-man-in-the-middle. He’s in the middle of a family wracked by pain. He’s in the middle of political disputes marked by anger. He’s in the middle of racial attitudes that hamper every step forward. He’s in the middle of war-fighting and peace negotiations. He’s in the middle of savagery and civility. He’s stuck, caught, and mired in the middle of nearly everything of weight and worth.

· The music is noteworthy, to me, for its absence. I can’t recall it now, other than to remember that I saw John Williams on the music credits. For someone like me who so loved the music in Ken Burns’s Civil War mini-series, I thought the music should have made more of an impact than it did. Then again, I can understand a storyteller like Spielberg fearing that the music might get in the way of the story.

· Overall, the movie offers a theme with which I heartily agree. The pivot of the Civil War is Lincoln’s role as president. Unless he gets re-elected in 1864, the war ends in compromise and negotiation. Slavery remains intact. I think it would still be in North America down to today. Only Lincoln could have pushed through the 13th Amendment. Only winning re-election enables him to do this.

· A trio of quibble points. First, I think the script may have slightly overplayed the idea that Lincoln was thoroughly loved by the American people. In fact, the real reason he was re-elected was the twin military successes of William T. Sherman in the Deep South and Philip Sheridan in the Valley of Virginia. Without these highly visible and successful military campaigns by Union, or American, forces, Lincoln goes down to defeat in the 1864 election. He was not that loved to win re-election without battle victories. Second, for me the Second Inaugural Address of March 1865 was rather washed out in the story. I felt as if the audience was perhaps near exhaustion at that point in the film to be able to fully appreciate the amazing power of that speech. Third, I don’t think the audience gets the evolution—no pun intended—of Lincoln’s spiritual growth by early 1865. His relationship to Christianity has traveled across a dramatic arc by that point in his life.

· There are hundreds, thousands, of these scenes and stories from history that could make a compelling movie. I wish they did more that emulated the artistry of Spielberg’s Lincoln.

· So much of the American experience hangs by a tissue of choice. A different decision, a different action, a different turn or twist in this effort or that exertion, and everything changes, or would have changed.

· If you are a prospective client of mine, I have a suggestion. Contact me to do a new leadership session around a very intriguing slice of this movie—Lincoln’s walk in Petersburg on April 3, 1865. The movie showed him on horseback. The rest of the story of that visit to Petersburg is so dramatic I couldn’t have made it up. Call me (317-407-3687) if you’re interested in learning more about my thoughts on this session and topic. Also, Lincoln has a key role in my Walkshop. Let me know if you’d like to participate in my Leadership Now Walkshop built around the day of July 9, 1862 in the life of Benjamin Harrison. It has astounding relevance to your own life as a leader.