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Mr. President

13 Dec

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Having the night off from rehearsal, I thought I’d go n’ visit our little Arthouse, The Grand, and geek out on some study time.  Just me, n’ a couple of my teachers…namely Daniel Day-Lewis, Stephen Spielberg, Sally Field, Hal Holbrook, and Tommy Lee Jones.

…I picked well.

“Lincoln.”

…The screenplay: far less epic in content, the costumes and sets: less opulent than Hollywood has always previously shown us to expect of the period, the battle scenes: awkward, and chaotic…equally that in the House, with its members in full head-on debate, and quiet scene after quiet scene of a man whose face you could never mistake for anyone else’s: hair in an unruly coif, sunken cheeks amidst angular bone structure, with deep-set, hooded eyes wearing the weariness of War, and fast-approaching end of his first term of Presidency.

It took me a bit to understand exactly where they were going with all this.

…Not the “story line,” mind you, but the way in which they were telling it.  And why. 

…The point being: we already know the history, what was fought and won on the battle field, and in the House. But suppose we put all those high stakes and risks, and political choices into a different perspective, by remembering for a moment, that this person who made it all happen was not “Abraham Lincoln” as we know him to be. 

…Suppose we follow him into his bedroom, overhearing his interpretation of the days events while his stockinged feet are propped up on a sofa leg, with his wife’s discarded evening dress hanging before him.  Suppose we watch this giant of a man (in form and in legend), shuffle in slippers, to his son’s playroom, work his way to lay on the floor beside him, just to get on his level to look in the small face and give it a kiss.  Watch him give piggyback rides, like every dad does…share inside jokes and bitter fights with his wife, tell epic stories in inappropriate moments to his employees…sport a funny high-reed of a voice, that rasps after often great lengths in oratory…and see how he seems to have one speed at which he walks, talks, thinks and decides things…which is conservatively specific and frustratingly, painstakingly, slow.

…Think of him not in the “Sit Room,” discussing War and political strategy, but in the cellar of his kitchen — sinks full of dirty dishes and counters full of used wine glasses and platters–trying to coerce an ali, while a gala party goes on without him upstairs.  Think of him not addressing crowd after crowd giving any number of the speeches we all know by heart, but keeping company with a few soldiers on a battle field, or on a front porch with his general and friend, Ulysses S. Grant, puffing on a cigar beside him. Think of the privacy of a Parent’s grief at the loss of their son and how they share in deaths of everyone else’s son’s by extension.

…Think of him, just as a man.

Because: he was.

Albeit a remarkable one…but we already know that.

I think the point of this “study” on film, is not so much to look at the legend he was to become because of who he was…but to see that BEING who he was, MADE him into this remarkable legend.

And it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t obvious choices and fire-fueled debates and banners of glory, backed by a thankful Nation. He was actively hated by half the country, blamed for the War that slaughtered millions, turning brother against brother…had a split House, was trying to pass a radical new Amendment into law, just prior to beginning his second term in office, while dealing with an emotionally unstable wife, a son wanting to enlist, his Party threatening to turn their backs on him, his own Cabinet split in their support of his next plans of attack, a Southern delegation for peace on it way, which could entirely screw up his Emancipation Proclamation, and the knowledge that timing is everything…and what must be done, must be done NOW or NEVER.

…So, no pressure or anything.

What I loved about this whole approach was the constant, specific, reminder that our greatest moments in History are not the sure-fire wins we know in retrospect, them to be. What makes perfect sense and could never possibly happen in any other way (in hind sight), absolutely could have been crushed coming ’round any of the 45 corners along the epically painful obstacle course set out in real-time when History was busy being “current” and in-the-actual-making.

…They had no real way of knowing “how” or “when” or “why” or “if.” They had no idea the repercussions or what would branch and build out from them. They were our “Forefathers,” sure…but they were just men. Sometimes one or two, sometimes by the room full. We know their names from class text books and for what they’ve put their names to. We know them by their resumes. But this film was a chance to get a peek at this entirely different aspect of their lives and battles and weaknesses and private strengths.

…Then to sit there time after time and be gobsmacked by the turning of Party lines as a House of Republicans fight to put equality to law, Democrats fighting tooth and nail to oppose them, directly after an election 147 years later, where the same damn fight just took place in my own state backed by opposite parties, in a freak 180 degree turn of total irony.

It’s sorta mind-blowing in a million quiet, specific, painful ways.

…Ultimately, of course, the guy was eloquent, and brave, and hopeful, and trusting, and wholly without thoughts of spite or revenge: our “Mr. President.” Perhaps more than we deserved, but sometimes faith in people sorta forces them to rise to the occasion. Or, better put, a good example put before us, inspires us to greatness, respect and humaneness.

M’favorite part of the entire film, in fact, was one quiet moment in an empty telegraph room, save for a young engineer, the telegraph boy, and the President.

…He has to send a cable in response to Grant’s notification. There are Confederate delegates ready to meet in a peace talk that could now end the war. Meanwhile, up on the hill, lobbyists are fighting tooth and nail to secure the votes he needs to pass the 13th Amendment into law. If he ends the War before the vote: he could lose them altogether, and thus this certain perfect window of time to abolish slavery. If he doesn’t end the War, he might lose the vote anyway, and have the blood of how many more sons and brothers and fathers, killed in that time, on his hands? He has a choice to make, and has given it, but hesitates when the telegraph boy asks him if he authorises transmit.

…He sits there for a long while, just thinking…running everything through his mind. Eventually he turns to the young Engineer and begins to relate to him, “Euclid’s Theory.”

…No clip on YouTube or snippit of script I could find, leaves his spur of the moment History lesson on mathematics in tact as the movie has done. So go: pay the bucks…sit in the seat…watch the work of this man, and get to that scene….where I think Tony Kushner (Pulitzer winning author of “Angels in America”) has his finest, quiet moment in the script.

Just a man and two boys, (and whole Nation) waiting for an answer to one simple question. And keeping to character, the man (as we now know him), chooses that moment to launch on into a (seemingly) totally inappropriately timed story.

…It comes, partway in, at:

“…Euclid’s first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works – has done and always will do. In his book Euclid says this is self evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2000 year old book of mechanical law it is the self evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other…”

Almost 150 years later, and we’re sadly still trying to get that through our damn heads.

…”Math doesn’t lie, so fuckin’ DEAL with it!”
~ Another inaccurate but closely (at least) related quote on the internet, attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

~D

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