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‘Lincoln’ in the ambassador’s home

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It’s unusual enough for an ambassador to host a showing of a movie in his home. But American Ambassador Harry Thomas was hosting a private viewing of not just any movie. It was “Lincoln,” a film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the account (told in the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin) of the last four months of Lincoln’s life and the struggle to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.

It’s also a film, it turns out, of some personal significance to the ambassador, who is African-American. “Of course it holds a personal significance to me,” he remarked at the end of the film showing. “I was born in 1956, and when I visited relatives in South Carolina, when I wanted to watch a movie, I could do so only in the section for blacks on the second floor of the movie house. And when I wanted to visit the public library, I could only sit in the part reserved for blacks.”

“But then,” he added, smiling, “things have changed so much since then, haven’t they?”

Certainly, living through the height of the civil rights struggle gives one perspective while sitting through a movie like “Lincoln.” Top of mind, certainly for the ambassador, I would guess, is that the commander in chief of the United States today is himself African-American and on his second term. How things have changed, indeed!

* * *

Much goodwill attended the making and showing of “Lincoln,” which made its theatrical debut late last year. But as comedian (and acerbic social commentator) Joan Rivers said on TV recently: “Of course I knew it was important and was about serious matters, but still, even before the movie was halfway through, I couldn’t help it, I was sooo bored!”

To be honest, that was my fear, too, as I sat down to join Ambassador Thomas’ guests view the movie as it was aired by the US military’s overseas TV network. (“Lincoln” opens this week locally.)

But I surprised even myself, as were I suppose audiences in the United States and elsewhere, who have made “Lincoln” a modest hit, as well as a critical success. Critic Colin Covert of the “Star Tribune,” quoted on the movie’s entry to Wikipedia, wrote that “Lincoln is one of those rare projects where a great director, a great actor and a great writer amplify one another’s gifts. The team of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner has brought forth a triumphant piece of historical journalism, a profound work of popular art and a rich examination of one of our darkest epochs.”

Certainly a big factor is how the American government—and Congress—in Lincoln’s time so closely resemble government and politicians today, in Washington, D.C. as well as in Manila. Filipinos and Americans in the ambassador’s salon could be heard chuckling and snickering as operatives of Secretary of State Seward approach “lame duck” Democrats in the House to convince them to vote in favor of the amendment in exchange for favors and privileges. Politicians will always be politicians, and even a revered figure like Lincoln was sometimes forced to play the game of politics and patronage to get historical, indeed moral, pieces of legislation through congressional gridlock.

* * *

Beyond the comedy of politicians and politics, however, there’s also the compelling performance of Day-Lewis, who does not so much “act” as Lincoln as inhabit the persona of the man. For most of the movie, I found myself forgetting that this was a movie actor in Lincoln make-up and garb. Indeed, the method actor in Day-Lewis even researched Lincoln’s voice, finding out that he spoke in a rather high-pitched tone, belying earlier portrayals that show the “Great Emancipator” as a stentorian orator.

Even richer is Day-Lewis’ depiction of Lincoln the husband and father. One shares his frustration, indeed his grief, at how the loss of a son has so unhinged his wife Mary, who trembles at the prospect of losing their oldest son Robert who has abandoned his studies at Harvard to join the Union army. Their fiery arguments, and yet his enduring fondness for Mary, paint a portrait of a troubled marriage that is nonetheless durable and deeply felt.

The movie also limns the President’s strained relations with Robert, and his palpable fondness for the youngest boy Tad, a love that transcends the pressures of Washington politics and the cruelties of war. But it is a personal strength bought at much cost. In a conversation that Lincoln shares with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant just before the South’s surrender, Grant observes that Lincoln “has aged 10 years since I last saw you a year ago.”

* * *

Fellow cast members and crew of “Lincoln” told interviewers how, once Day-Lewis entered the set in full Lincoln garb, they immediately fell into a hush and hesitated to break his being in character with chit-chat and sports talk.

He had convinced even them, his co-workers, to pay homage not so much to a fellow actor and worker, as to the memory of one of the greatest Presidents of the United States, who, by the power of his words and person, led the nation away from the evils of slavery to live up to the promise of the founding fathers that “all men are created equal.”

During the debates at the House, one lawmaker scoffs at the concept of giving Negroes the right to vote. “What’s next?” he thunders, “giving women the vote?”

Oh, how things have changed! But how, sadly, they have also remained (somewhat) the same. As TV comic Jon Stewart, reviewing the results of the last US elections reflected on the map of the United States, observed: “This isn’t about the elections, this is about the Union and Confederate states!”

Sorry, Mr. Ambassador, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


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