‘I’ ON CULTURE
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln lays out the great man’s actions, particularly during the struggle for the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in a very strong history lesson. Unfortunately, while very good, it is also clearly a lesson. The script, by screenwriter Tony Kushner, is filled with aphorisms and twists, many of which are clearly meant to teach. As a result, the film is ideal for an old history teacher like me, but far too long for real enjoyment. Even worse, the film is unfocused; it seems unable to decide whether it’s biography or history.
Adapted from an award-winning book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, this film sees Spielberg and Kushner choosing to focus on the struggle at the very start of 1865 to get the amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives. Facing strong opposition from Democrats, the measure required a two-thirds vote for passage. We get to see the underside of politics: the buying of votes, the appeals to racism. Watching a group of bottom-feeders offering jobs and money to defeated Democratic congressmen serving out their “lame duck” terms is amusing but also moves us away from Lincoln himself.
Daniel Day-Lewis provides a brilliant portrayal of our 16th president. Within seconds after the opening scene, he becomes the president. And the screenplay brings out a lot of elements of his humanity, perhaps too many. His constant storytelling in the middle of crises slows down the drama needlessly. Even worse, the script constantly feels obliged to toss in historical bits as if to say, “Hey, look, here is a great man and don’t you forget it.”
During the opening scene, depicting Lincoln speaking to soldiers heading off to war, the script has a couple of white soldiers who just happened to have been at the Gettysburg Address, first saying they had not really been able to hear it and then beginning to recite its opening. As they leave, a black soldier, who had harangued Lincoln because he got lower pay than white soldiers, finishes the famous short speech. That was not history, just a bit of chance for a lesson.
Beyond Day-Lewis’ superb portrayal, most of the cast is essentially one-dimensional. Almost all the Democrats are portrayed as racists, and many Republicans as willing to sell out too easily. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln is mostly a goad to Honest Abe. Still mourning the loss of their son William, she performs most of her scenes on a “let’s do a quick soap opera effort” basis, either crying or yelling or scheming. Lincoln seems a saint for putting up with her, although he threatened to have her institutionalized (which she was, years later).
Tommy Lee Jones in the flashy part of Thaddeus Stevens, perhaps the most radical member of the Abolitionist wing of Lincoln’s Republican Party, does a very good crotchety old man, similar to most of his other recent roles. He does, however, bring a measure of dignity to the unbending character, and his final scene with his housekeeper (S. Epatha Merkerson), a woman with whom he slept for many years (and some say he married) was lovely. She had refused to come to the House for the vote to spare him gossip, but he brought her the original copy of the amendment. This was a stunning scene.
But it is Day-Lewis’s performance that dominates the film. Lincoln is seen as the “great man” but also as father, suffering husband and, particularly, as a scheming but very smart politician. His scenes near the end of the film as he works to reason with those opposing the amendment are very strong.
This is a very un-Steven Spielberg kind of movie. There are few brilliant camera effects and no brilliant visuals. It often moves away from Lincoln to focus on the other politicians, occasionally bringing in scenes for the sake of history rather than story. The picture should have ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment; instead it meanders through Lee’s surrender, then about 10 minutes of not-very-good filler up to Lincoln’s death, somehow followed by his giving the most famous part of the Second Inaugural Address. Spielberg obviously was torn between the political story and his admiration for the great man.
It is a good movie; teachers will be using pieces of it for years. But it lacks the power it might have had if it had simply concentrated on the passing of that very important amendment. I fear its popularity will suffer because of competition from other movies. Far more people went to see the vampire movie. And that is a shame. The vampires pretend not to be mortal; Lincoln’s gift to us all is truly immortal.