Lincoln Review

by Mark R. Leeper (mleeper AT optonline DOT net)
November 20th, 2012

    (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

    CAPSULE: With very interesting release timing and with considerable historical accuracy, Stephen Spielberg tells the history of the two great conflicting goals Abraham Lincoln had toward the end of the Civil War. He wanted both to free the slaves and to end the war. Spielberg does not simplify the issues. Much of the film is talk. Spielberg respects his audience's intelligence enough to tell the complex story and maintain a great deal of
    historical accuracy. The film even looks very accurate to the period. The viewer may have to work hard, but the work is worth the effort. This is a film for an
    intelligent audience. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
During the United States Civil War the Union had hundreds of thousands of men in the field fighting (whether some realized it or not) for the rights of others. But in the last year a parallel war was being waged in the Union's Congress to determine if that government would emancipate the slaves. That war was fought just as dirty and with nearly as much fury. Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN is a paean to the people who fought for justice for the Southern slaves, a war that was headed, just as the battlefield war was, by Abraham Lincoln.

One can read in high school history books that under Lincoln the 13th Amendment was ratified. One rarely reads about what a hard- fought battle getting it approved was against both the Democrats and members of his own Republican party. Based on a script by Tony Kushner, Spielberg tells with some tension of Lincoln's quest for the twenty additional votes he needed to get the amendment ratified by the House of Representatives. (Curiously, little is made of the fact that it had already been passed by the Senate with what must have been much of the same political wrangling.) Lincoln finds himself in the peculiar position of desperately wanting to end the war, but knowing that if it ends too soon the House of Representatives will never ratify the 13th Amendment. He has to extend a war that he greatly hates. He must balance ending the war with ending slavery. His slow and complex efforts to get the additional votes draw on the same sort of tension that TWELVE ANGRY MEN had. The final count is reminiscent of the film 1776. Frequently when I review a historical film I will have a paragraph or so after the main review telling where the film got the history wrong. All the research I have seen has said that LINCOLN gets the facts fairly close to recorded history.

The look of LINCOLN gives a good impression of what living in 1863 would be like. This means a lot of the film is dimly lit in a manner we expect from film noir, often with the shadow on a face fading into the background. Do not expect bright, saturated colors. Many of the officers in the armies had very big bushy beards that are generally portrayed in films much shorter. Spielberg works hard for great accuracy, and we see some really large beards. This is a smart film but not really a pretty one. Do not expect it to just wash over you like a James Bond chase. It is hard work to follow what is going on. Be ready at the beginning of each scene to listen carefully to what is being said in this dialog-heavy film. And I hope you have a better memory for names than I have. (Don't worry, that would not be difficult.)
Spielberg populates LINCOLN with a very large cast of many popular actors. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln leads the cast. He is not the sort of Lincoln that Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, or Raymond Massey played (and certainly not the Lincoln who was on STAR TREK). This Lincoln fills his conversation with anecdotes and jokes, to the point that he made exchanges with him a little trying. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer says that Lincoln's voice was probably a little shriller and higher than it has been played. Day-Lewis plays him as a man who could have his mind on several tracks at the same time, hence the self-interruption and his propensity for the quick quip. The film also suggests that his arguments with Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field) could be fiery and loud.
LINCOLN is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's accounts of the emancipation in her book TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. I imagine that on third or fourth viewing much more of it will be clear. I rate LINCOLN a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Spielberg gives us an account of a lame duck Congress being coerced to work on bi-partisan lines to act for the good of the country. It was released a little too late to affect the voting in the United States election, but it is an account of an embattled Congress eventually doing the right thing. It would be great if our own Congress would do the same thing. LINCOLN is a distant mirror of our own times and politics.

This does seem to be Abraham Lincoln's year of being a hero in the movies with this film following as it does close on the heels of ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER.

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Mark R. Leeper
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Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper

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