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Lincoln goes by the book

YEP YEP – “We have the fate of human dignity in our hands,” President Abraham Lincoln pleads to his cabinet on the eve of the perilous vote to pass the 13th Amendment and thus abolish slavery once and for all.

That is the nuts and bolts of the scope of director Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated and finally delivered Lincoln.

Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best seller Team of Rivals; and, as adapted with discipline and detail by Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, that is the film’s fatal flaw.

It is January, 1865, the War Between the States is coming to a close after four brutal years of combat pitting northern brother against southern brother. A conflict almost too gruesome now to even comprehend.

Our war-weary President, played brilliantly by the one and only Daniel Day-Lewis, has crafted an amendment to the Constitution to give Congress the power to abolish America’s crushing moral dilemma, slavery. But he will need bi-partisan support for it to pass. With 64 Democrat seats serving as lame ducks – a delicious political term meaning “cannot run for re-election” – he and his Republican team only need to poach 20 lame ducks away to seal the deal. But easier said than done.

Now there – doesn’t that sound like a compelling dramatic arc for a film?

Not quite.

Needless to say, passing the 13th Amendment was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history that altered the destiny of many, if not all; but as a film narrative it only goes so far.

I guess my biggest complaint about Lincoln is more of a lament. I’ve been obsessed with our mythical 16th President since I was five (I’m surely not alone), so his “story” has played out in my mind’s eye nearly my entire life. I kept a scrapbook journal dedicated to Lincoln, complete with illustrations and anecdotes. He was my hero. His unlikely rise to the White House, his signature beard and stove pipe hat, his Gettysburg Address, his nutty wife Mary Todd and their beloved Tad, his Emancipation Proclamation, and then his untimely Shakespearean assassination.

This film, Spielberg’s Lincoln, is not the film I have been waiting for. It’s a good film with an amazing central performance. It’s an important film that illustrates much about our complex political system. But it’s really Goodwin’s book that is on display as much as Abraham Lincoln.

With an accomplished director like Spielberg it is impossible not to compare his films against one another, and the obvious comparison here is to Saving Private Ryan.

Who could forget the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan? Spielberg gave the world a first hand look (and feel!) of what it must have been like on that beach in Normandy. The savage horror that awaited our troops. The tenacity it took to take that bunker and move inland. It was a filmmaking tour de force by the world’s greatest director and his innovative cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski.

I am by no means implying that Lincoln was required to give us an equal portion of war mayhem to set the table; nonetheless, without a visceral sense of what the country had been through leading up to January 1865, the audience is shortchanged the gargantuan context in which all political decisions were being made.

There is an early scene in the film depicting a brutal muddy melee between Union and Confederate soldiers; and a short, morbid scene near the end when President Lincoln tours a battlefield and sees bodies piled upon bodies.

However, Lincoln is much more of an intimate look at the horse trading and mechanical maneuverings of our government’s checks and balances, and the result is a somewhat claustrophobic experience of watching men in wigs squawk it out on the floor in the House of Representatives, an experience not all that different from another historically significant Spielberg film, Amistad. A better, more emotionally powerful film, in my opinion.

No, I did not expect to be writing that the morning after a film I’ve looked forward to since the announcement of Daniel Day-Lewis’ attachment.

Sally Field is excellent as Mary Todd Lincoln. In fact, for my money, the film doesn’t kick in to a serviceable gear until 90 minutes in when she and her husband go at each other for their behavior during their grieving over the loss of their young son, Willy.

There is another scene later in the film when Lincoln the father rebukes his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), for his longing to join the military and contribute to the fight. What you realize in the scene, aside from the fine work from the two actors, is how refreshing it is to have a scene set outdoors – on a wharf – a rare glimpse of the world these people lived in. A rare glimpse in this film of dark, shadowed interiors.

Another minor complaint, one that I’ve been sensitive to since the acclaimed Civil War novel turned film Cold Mountain’s casting of Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, why Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant? I get casting a Brit as our most beloved American President, because we’re not talking about any ordinary Brit. But you mean to tell me Spielberg couldn’t find an American actor with more gravitas – and resemblance – to Grant than Mad Men’s whiny U.K. ad man, Harris? Come on, man!

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Lincoln. It’s an admirable film. It’s likely to win more than a handful of Oscars, probably bringing a third statue to the incredible method man, Daniel DayLewis; and maybe even a third to Sally Field.

I will see it again and may just learn to appreciate it more and more as I sit with it. The dialogue is rich and authentic. Tommy Lee Jones, in particular, provides several memorable moments as Republican House leader Thaddeus Stevens – even though Stevens is mentioned a mere four times in Goodwin’s  750 page book.

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel an opportunity has been missed. Imagine if Spielberg and Day-Lewis had teamed up with Ken Burns to make a two-part film out of Burns’ docu-masterpiece The Civil WarPart one released at Thanksgiving, part two at Christmas.

Now that would have been the Lincoln film I’ve been waiting for my whole life.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

3 thoughts on “Lincoln goes by the book

  1. Pingback: 3 films with themes that bind us all | Lars Beckerman

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