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Lincoln is a fine film about the man we would all like to believe was our 16th President, a hagiography so thorough in its depiction of Lincoln as a latter-day saint that it reminded me of the likely apocryphal story of George M. Cohan’s reaction to the film about his own life, Yankee Doodle Dandy: “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”
I find it hard to imagine that Abraham Lincoln was anywhere near as perfect a man as Steven Spielberg’s movie would have us believe he was. In the film, which largely covers the month of January, 1865, and Lincoln’s efforts to get the wartime House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. It’s not the ideal subject matter for a lengthy drama, one that involves a whole lot of talking (in language that feels stilted today and may have even been so for the time) and not much else, nor does such a short period of time and such a binary issue of right and wrong lend itself to a thorough character study. Titling the film The Thirteenth Amendment rather than Lincoln would have been more accurate, although I imagine it would have hurt ticket sales and perhaps even awards buzz.
Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as Lincoln in a performance that has been largely sweeping the major acting awards so far this season, although he may be receiving too much credit for the consistency and power of his portrayal of the man’s bearing and accent, as the character on the screen lacks much depth. The worst thing you can say about this version of Lincoln is that he’s willing to trade a handful of patronage jobs to secure passage of an amendment that would free millions of people from bondage. He is otherwise unflawed, a devoted husband, a pillar of strength in his family and for his country, a tireless leader fully committed to his principles of freedom and some form of equality. Day-Lewis looks the part, and sounds the part, but was the part really as complex as his mantle full of trophies might indicate?
The somewhat two-dimensional nature of Lincoln’s character opens the door for Tommy Lee Jones to steal a few scenes as the cantankerous Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican (back when that party stood for something very different) and staunch abolitionist whose speeches in favor of the Amendment are shown as pivotal to its passage. Lincoln may have the best monologues, but Stevens gets the one-liners, and Jones gets to stretch a little more, especially in the range of emotions required for his role. Beyond Jones, the film is packed with white character actors you’ll recognize and spend a few minutes trying to place, including a few veterans of The Wire, as well as a brief appearance by David Oyelowo, who played Danny on the first few seasons of the British series MI-5. These roles seem to be more focused on historical accuracy than depth of character, with the same applying to Sally Field’s nuance-less portrayal of the neurotic Mary Todd Lincoln, a role in which she practically wrings her hands off their wrists.
The story opens in early January of 1865, as Lincoln has just won re-election but, as was true until the passage of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, must deal with a lame-duck Congress until March 4th, at which point the numbers will shift more strongly in Lincoln’s favor. Lincoln chooses, over the counsel of his tiny Cabinet, to push for passage of the Amendment even though the House had been stalling since the Senate’s passage of it the previous April. Lincoln indicates that he wants to use the threat of passage as a way to force the South’s hand and encourage their surrender, beginning a series of horse-trades and slight deceptions that gradually line up the required votes in the House. The most interesting of these scenes, however, don’t involve Day-Lewis, who is so thoroughly embedded in his depiction of Lincoln that he precludes the potential for balanced dialogue (which may simply be the fault of Tony Kushner’s script) when he’s on the screen.
This shouldn’t really spoil anything in the film, but the amendment does, in fact, pass the House with about fifteen minutes left in the movie, meaning we get the great climax and then a bunch of housecleaning scenes, including the South’s capitulation at Appamattox and, of course, Lincoln’s assassination, shown off-screen and handled in the most perfunctory manner. The film could just as easily ended with Lincoln’s reaction after the climactic vote, but finishing his personal story at the movie’s conclusion felt forced given how little of his personal story appeared elsewhere in the film. It’s not really a biopic, but the story of a specific political endeavor, and tacking on the war’s end and Lincoln’s death was, at best, unnecessary.
Although the script was written and the film completed before the 2012 Presidential election, I thought there might be some faint parallels intentionally built into the movie. We now have a liberal President, entering a second term, pushing issues of freedom – with lower stakes than slavery, but, whether we’re talking about the War on Women or marriage equality, still matters of liberty and equal rights – while trying to wind down not one but two unpopular wars. Lincoln used the political capital of his second term to try to push through a morally justified but not overwhelmingly popular amendment to the constitution. Is Kushner encouraging President Obama to cash in some of his political capital to fight for specific causes, like marriage equality? I concede I may be reading far too much into the film, but the parallels seemed too strong to ignore.
I’ve now seen seven of the nine Best Picture nominees, all but Les Miserables and Amour, and while Lincoln may very well win the award, I couldn’t give you a competent argument that it should. I wouldn’t rate it higher than fourth, behind Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, and Argo, and if you want to tell me it should be behind Life of Pi I won’t fight you on it. Day-Lewis is a lock to win the Best Actor award, but since I’ve only seen one of the other nominees’ performances – Brad Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook – I can’t offer an opinion on that one. Jones shouldn’t beat out Christoph Walz (Django) for Best Supporting Actor, while Field is probably going to be trounced by Anne Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress and would be behind Jacki Weaver (SLP) on my ballot anyway. (All links in this paragraph go to my reviews of those films.)
Lincoln was based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s hefty, critically-acclaimed book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I’ve got a few long reads on my to-do list already, so I’ll save this for another time.