Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Top Five Films on Abraham Lincoln

In observance of Abraham Lincoln's 205th birthday I've compiled a list of my favorite films about our 16th president.  Film biographies in themselves are dubious for their historical accuracy, but they are an irresistible genre of American film for all their foibles.

5) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012) - In an age dominated by superhero films - why not turn the heroic president into a vampire slayer?  The totally absurd premise makes the movie work with insane scenes like Abraham and Mary Todd fighting off vampires on a speeding steam engine.  This is not the movie for history buffs who flip out over historical inaccuracies, but I enjoyed it.  Readers of Lincoln biographies will notice a surprising amount of accuracy about Lincoln's life - minus fighting off the undead!

4) Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)- John Ford effectively blended history and myth into a film about Lincoln's early days in Springfield.  Many of these scenes of frontier America were taken directly from Carl Sandburg's elegiac, six-volume biography.  Henry Fonda is perfectly cast in this piece of Americana.  The climatic courtroom scene has Lincoln pulling off some moves to make Perry Mason proud.

3) Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)- Raymond Massey plays Lincoln as the sad eyed prophet of the prairie.  Based on a hit Broadway play by Robert Sherwood, the film follows Lincoln's rise from Springfield lawyer to candidate for President.  Some highlights include the debates with Stephen Douglas and his farewell speech before leaving Springfield.  

2) The Civil War (1990)- Ken Burn's groundbreaking PBS series cast Lincoln as the era's conscience and upholder of the idea of America.  Sam Waterston's narration captures the power of Lincoln's rhetoric and all the tragic loss and dashed hopes of the Civil War. Many of Lincoln's most important moments as President such as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and his assassination are evoked in ways motion pictures fall way short. 

1) Lincoln (2012)- Steven Spielberg's long awaited biography of Lincoln did it's best to strive for authenticity.  The film follows Lincoln in the final months of his life as struggled to pass the 13th amendment which abolished slavery.  Daniel Day Lewis set a new standard for accuracy when portraying a historical figure.  There's no hero worship here as Spielberg depicted Lincoln as a pragmatist who realized the limits of his idealism - and did the best he could under those conditions. 

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