If hindsight is 20/20, I believe that prominent movies of the past few months or year should be critically re-evaluated and put into the perspective of time. After ten years of chaotic development, last November saw the release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It received positive if not always glowing reviews, a decent box office take and, more recently, Daniel Day Lewis’s third Academy Award for best actor in a leading role. I saw the movie in theaters with my father, who is a historian in every way save professionally, and though we both liked it, our admiration is not without its caveats and exceptions.
Lincoln is filled with incredible performances that only begin with Day-Lewis’ embodiment of the Great Emancipator, presented against the backdrop of Rick Carter’s production design of unparalleled richness, detail and faithfulness to the facts and spirit of the times and places that Lincoln knew and called home. Though not a straight adaptation, its focus on the president’s chaotic and troubled relationship with his cabinet during passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery comes from popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, written halfway through the movie’s development and published after Spielberg seized the film rights. The end-result expertly humanizes and summarizes both the man and the president by using his means of pushing the amendment through and the actual accomplishment to reflect the persistence, morality and shrewd compromise that made Lincoln the successful leader we know of today. Spielberg’s strength as a director has always been expert storytelling without imposing a distinctly personal style, so the movie’s simple, understated photography and pacing allow us intimacy with the characters and their world. Unfortunately, the film is filled with many exceptions to key rules and understandings about good filmmaking.
Though the long running time is understandable for a biography, Lincoln is really about the passage of one amendment whose implications are widely known; thus, many biographical elements take a back seat to that plot, which is really a historical lead balloon. That Abe contended with “rivals” in his own party is supposedly meant to parallel the ridiculous gridlock seen by many in Washington, DC, today, but it’s nothing particularly new and the audience that Lincoln aims to attract has probably come to such conclusions before seeing a single frame, leaving few if any real surprises or discoveries. While talented, playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s major claim to fame is the mini-series Angels In America, about homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980’s. In my opinion, this makes him a writer coming to this 19th century setting and group of characters from a sometimes obvious and decidedly 20th/21st century perspective that cannot be subdued, dismissed or hidden by narrative detail. Even the dialogue is distractingly modern in places, particularly where some secondary characters are concerned. A few minutes in, even Mary Todd Lincoln swiftly comes to the unlikely conclusion that her husband’s dream portends his goal and fight to pass the amendment. Though aristocratic and politically knowledgeable, Mary Todd in 1864 was consumed by prolonged grief over the death of her son Willie. She was distracting herself with trips to family and shopping sprees so extravagant that the debt had to be covered by the federal government. For me, these and other elements not only belie but do a disservice to the rest of the film’s heroic attempts at accuracy and authenticity.
I doubt Lincoln would exist without director Steven Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy. Too much time and money was likely spent on a film that is only partially about the titular character. In the industry’s efforts to screen out numerous wannabe writers and filmmakers, etc., almost no reputable producer or agent in Hollywood would likely consider a script like this without the attachment of major talent and one or more rewrites, which rarely accompanies the average, unrepresented spec script. It obviously had major talent in spades, but the only real rewrite(s) I know of is the one that took 70 pages out of a 550 page script on Lincoln’s presidency and expanded it into a cinematic dissertation on the political machinations behind the passage of the 13th Amendment (in the House of Representatives). That is exhausting just to read and consider, so the fact that the movie is slightly more entertaining and engaging is a minor miracle.
In conclusion, I applaud the intent, basic execution and even the narrative focus of the film. However, I wish with all my heart that there existed a separate, yet equally powerful and resourceful wing of the American film industry that could have made a movie about Lincoln, unencumbered by the cronyism and politics of that inner-circle of “expert” talent called Hollywood. At least we wouldn’t have this glamorous, yet singular and ruefully biased behemoth at the center of things, telling us how history should be reflected and what should and should not pass as great cinema.