December 21st, 2012 Comments Off on

A Reason to Hope, in the Season of Hope

We live in a time of overpromising. Headlines promise revelations that somehow seem less revelatory in the eighth paragraph of the story; movie trailers nearly invariably make the coming feature seem fantastic—stringing together the 90 best seconds in what may be a two-hour snore.

And with the rise of the Web, mobile devices, and round-the-clock media, it is unusual to encounter anything—a new book, or car, or movie, or flavor of potato chips—without already having had the product heralded, or blasted, or both before you have ever come into contact with it.

That’s why I am, for at lest one thing, grateful to Superstorm Sandy. The tumult that the storm created for many of us on Long Island included (for me) nearly a month without home access to cable, phone, or Internet service. Which meant that when I decided to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” I walked into the theatre almost entirely free of preconceptions.

I did bring some prejudices—including the common one that Spielberg is at his best when directing blockbusters than when trying more “serious” topics. But I knew almost nothing about the film.

And the opening scene, with various soldiers reciting in stages the Gettysburg Address, was a bit contrived, so I was left unprepared for what followed—a film that engaged seriously with the Civil War, the nature of American Democracy, and the character of Abraham Lincoln.

My own academic training is as an American historian, and although the Civil War era is not my specialty, I have certainly read a great deal about it and the era. I found myself marveling at the ability of the filmmakers to inhabit the world of 1865. Not the routine marvels of set and costume design, lighting, etc., but the more unusual ability to encompass a different time, and different set of values.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is extraordinary—the more so because Lincoln is the most elusive of great American historical figures. Day-Lewis’s performance is not only an acing tour de force but also an extraordinary exercise of the historical imagination.

I only hope that you, my readers, will not find this to be another example of the modern sin of overpromising. Please let me know if you do.

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