Thursday, December 27, 2012


My son and I finally got around to seeing Lincoln.  Before it came out I had some concerns about the film because Steven Spielberg can get overly reverential and superficial when he's in his "serious" mode and feared that with screenwriter Tony Kushner, who provided a corrupt moral frame for Spielberg's Munich, this new film would be awash in presentism.  I'm relieved to report that my concerns were unfounded and while Lincoln has its flaws, it is a fine film overall.

Best things about the film:

The storyline:  Great decision to make this a highly focused film around the fight to secure passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery by the House of Representatives in January 1865.  The movie is suspenseful even though you know the outcome.

Daniel Day-Lewis. From now on when I read Lincoln's speeches I'll be hearing Day-Lewis' high pitched, thin voice in my head.  He truly disappears into the role capturing both the mythic Lincoln and the guy who is always telling stories and jokes, including bathroom humor.  Astonishing to watch.  And Sally Fields is excellent as Mary Lincoln, a hard role to play well but she captures both the edginess and pathos of her personality.

The Politics. This is a movie about legislative strategy and tactics with deals getting cut and votes counted.  Well done and it helps to counterbalance the mythical aspects of the film which is hard to get away from when you're making a movie about Abraham Lincoln.

The Comic Relief.  The three "fixers" brought in from Albany to "persuade" lame duck Democratic congressmen to vote for the amendment are based on fact but also provide comic relief in the grand Shakespearean tradition.  James Spader is the lead fixer and he's a riot.

The Guy Who Played D-Day in Animal House gets to say "Now he belongs to the ages".  Bruce McGill plays Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  He also has the funniest line in the film when Abe embarks on yet another one of his stories.

Of course it looks great because it's a Spielberg film.

The Bad

One review of the film criticized it as being a series of dioramas.  I think that is unfair in general but there are times when it is accurate.  Certainly the first two scenes in the film fit in that category and there are other sections that resemble static scenes from a mediocre Broadway play.  There is also a lot of exposition to get through and sometimes it is staged very clumsily.  During those parts it can feel like you're watching the film while on a junior high field trip.

I also wonder how much of the subtlety of the plot is lost on moviegoers if you are not history nuts like THC and son.

In A Category Of Its Own 

Tommy Lee Jones doing his Tommy Lee Jones thing and chewing up the scenery as Thaddeus Stevens.

Since I've posted several times on misremembering history how does Lincoln stack up?  I know a bit about the Southern peace commissioners trip to Hampton Roads in early 1865 and the movie does a nice job here.  I know less about the passage of the 13th Amendment but I've read a number of historian comments and the consensus is that the movie is pretty accurate on the events it portrays, at least by the standards of Hollywood.

The major historian critique is more broadly about context.  Lincoln does not portray the evolution of the President's views on slavery during the course of the war nor the role of free and recently enslaved blacks in creating a reality in which leaving slavery in place in a reunited United States would have been difficult (see also, the Forever Free series).  It's a valid criticism but it's not the film Spielberg set out to make.  On its own terms Lincoln is a good historical film and it does a surprisingly sophisticated job in presenting the strategy and arguments around the 13th Amendment.

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