Friday, December 28, 2012


Lincoln (2012) Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Fields, David Stratham, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner.  Based (in part) on the book: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy. Music by John Williams. Run Time: 150 minutes. U.S. Color. History, Biography

Here is a film with important written all over it. How could it not be? The subject matter is Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It’s based on a book by a well-respected Presidential biographer. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and has music by John Williams. It’s so important that you really get the feeling the film knows it and takes itself extra seriously.

When I left the theater, I wasn’t sure exactly how I should feel, but I knew that some great important message had been sent, but maybe it was me that didn’t receive it. Do I think it will be up for several of the big Academy Awards? Yes. It has Academy Award nomination written all over it, almost as if it were made to receive such an accolade.

I am not able to talk specifically about the historical accuracies of the film, that is better left to historians. I understand Doris Kearns Goodwin is satisfied, but so was Lee Child (pen name for Jim Grant) with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, who is supposed to be 6’5” and 250 pounds. But Goodwin’s word is okay with me. She’d be the one losing sleep if it wasn’t.

Daniel Day-Lewis is very good as Abe Lincoln. While I’ve not kept a close eye on Day-Lewis’s career, this sort of praise is nothing new. It seems every role he takes is Academy Award worthy. Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln brings some humanity to a woman that is most often discussed as being crazy. She’s still crazy here, but she seems to be aware of it and there is some grounding given to her mental funk, the loss of Willie, the couple’s third son, who died during Lincoln’s first term. The couple had already lost Teddie, their second son in 1850, but that’s not mentioned in the movie, so I assumed she’d gotten over him by this time. And you do hear right, Abe does call her Molly, which is a pet name.

Watching the film, I was amazed at what a good job the hair, makeup and costumers had done, since seeing the cast is a little like seeing photos and drawings of that time come to life. Of course, not all of the characters in the film are necessarily well known to me and I would dare say to today’s audiences. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), may get a revival of interest, but until now his contributions and personal life had pretty much faded from popular lore, if he was ever in popular lore to begin with. But that’s one of the fascinating things about history: rediscovering people’s contributions to events that shaped the world. And the stories of William N. Bilbo (James Spader) and his fellow operatives and how they worked behind the scenes to help pass the amendment is one that is certainly not well known.

I will admit I didn’t know that Lincoln ever sat down with representatives from the Confederacy to discuss ending the war. For that matter, I didn’t know the name of the Vice-President of the Confederate States, Alexander H. Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) until this movie.

One can see that politics have changed very little since the Civil War. While the 13th Amendment was very important, Lincoln went out of his way to let the war continue (and people on both sides die) so that he could see it passed. He was willing to sign up operatives to make political promises to help get it passed and he was willing to grant himself rights that weren’t necessarily spelled out in the Constitution. Doesn’t this sound like the usual Standing Operating Procedures for our recent Presidents as well? Though none of our recent crop has been credited with passing such sweeping and important legislation.

There are a couple of historical issues I have with the film and not that I’m questioning their accuracy. I just don’t think the film does a good job of explaining things. Point in question is the support of Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). The father of a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, Blair had connections in the south as well as within the Republican Party. He was able to provide a block of Republicans who would vote for the amendment on one condition. Blair wanted to try to get peace talks going. With Lincoln’s consent, he went to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and convinced President Jefferson Davis to send three commissioners to hold talks.

But Lincoln knew that bringing a swift end to the war might hurt the chances of passing the 13th amendment, since the South would certainly demand that slavery be kept and the public might go for it. So he had the three commissioners put on ice, so to speak, and made their relatively short trip from Richmond to Washington D.C. take days, if not weeks, when it should have taken hours. Now Blair was aware of the commissioners and when, on the day of the vote, the evil Democrats (when’s the last time Democrats were projected in a bad light by a Hollywood movie?) brought up that the commissioners were either en route or already in Washington, D.C. Blair temporarily withdrew his support and the votes necessary to pass the legislation.

Congress hits the pause button, so to speak, until Lincoln responds to the issue if there are commissioners from the South suing for peace in Washington. Per the movie, Lincoln responds in typical political fashion with a cleverly worded response that to the best of his knowledge there were no representatives from the South in Washington, knowing full well he was keeping them at bay on board the River Queen near Hampton, Virginia. Even though Blair must know the President is not being truthful, he still gives back his support and the votes he controls and the amendment narrowly passes. But if Blair knows it was not the truth why did he give back his support?

The film depicts a meeting that would become known as the Hampton Road Conference and shows that it becomes clear to Stephens that even if the South were allowed back in to fight the 13th Amendment, it would still pass. And while we know the Hampton Road Conference was not a success, we’re not shown why. Apparently, the conference fell apart because of the South’s insistence on independence, but that’s not really brought up in Lincoln. Rather, you’d think the South was on the verge of coming back, but just doesn’t.

The film also dodges some really big events. The surrender at Appomattox Court House is only shown after its conclusion, when General Lee gets on his horse and rides away. Nor are we shown the actual assassination of Lincoln. Rather, the film walks us up to it and then cuts away to another theater, this one with Tad Lincoln, the President’s youngest son attending what appears to be an opera. The stage manager rushes on stage to tell everyone that the President had been shot at Ford’s Theater. And we get to see Tad’s anguished reaction. While this really happened, it just feels like a contrivance made up for the film designed to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience.

There is also an impromptu parade that comes about because the House passed the 13th amendment. This seems like a contrivance too. While there was a celebration, it happened the next night, not the day of passage. You might forgive a director for moving events around for dramatic effect, but the huge spontaneous celebration seemed overblown. The film talks about, but doesn’t deal with, the fact that once the House passed it, the amendment would still have to ratified by a majority of the state legislatures before it would become law.

Having watched Lincoln once, I’m not sure I would feel compelled to watch it again. Lincoln was a film I felt I had to see, because of all the buzz surrounding it. And while I learned some things about history of the Civil War, I also feel I was manipulated and misled by Spielberg. He wanted me to have a certain reaction and nothing, lest the facts, would get in the way.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very well-made film. Everything on the screen screams quality, but that doesn’t mean it’s really all that involving. Part of that may come from the fact that it is telling a well-known story and one that we all know how it ends. Despite all the backroom politics shown, we know the 13th Amendment passes, the Civil War is won by the North and that Lincoln is assassinated. All of this is important stuff and this film lets you know it knows it is.

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