“LINCOLN” (2012) Review
When I first heard of Steven Spielberg’s decision to make a biographical film about the 16th president of the United States, I ended up harboring a good deal of assumptions about the movie. I heard Spielberg had planned to focus on Abraham Lincoln’s last year in office and assumed the movie would be set between the spring of 1864 and April 1865. I had assumed the movie would be about Lincoln’s various problems with his military generals and other politicians. I thought it would be a more focused similarity to the 1998 miniseries of the same name.
In the end, “LINCOLN” proved to be something quite different. Partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography of Lincoln and his Cabinet members, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, the movie mainly focused on Lincoln’s efforts in January 1865 to have slavery abolished in the country, by getting the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives. According to Tony Kutchner’s screenplay, Lincoln expected the Civil War to end within a month. He felt concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts at the war’s conclusion and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states. To ensure that the 13th Amendment is added to the Constitution, Lincoln wanted it passed by the end of January in order to remove any possibility of those slaves who had already been freed, being re-enslaved. To reach his goal, Lincoln needed Republican party founder Francis Blair to garner support from the more conservative Republicans and support from Democratic congressmen, who would ordinarily vote against such an amendment. In order to acquire Blair’s support, Lincoln was forced to consider a peace conference with three political representatives from the Confederacy. And his Secretary of State, William Seward, recruits three lobbyists – William N. Bilbo, Colonel Robert Latham and Richard Schell – to convince lame duck Democratic congressmen to support the amendment.
I am surprised that the movie went through a great deal in crediting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book as a major source for the movie. Very surprised. I own a copy of the book and know for a fact that only four-and-a-half pages are devoted to the Thirteenth Amendment and five-and-half pages are devoted to the Peace Conference with Confederate political leaders. If so little came from Goodwin’s book, where did Tony Kutchner receive most of his historical information for the movie? And if he did use other historical sources, why did Spielberg failed to credit other historical sources for the movie?
I recall watching the trailer for “LINCOLN” and found myself slightly repelled by it. As someone who had to endure a great deal of pompous and self-righteous dialogue in a good number of historical dramas, I noticed that the trailer seemed to be full it. Fortunately, the movie was only tainted by a few scenes featuring pompous dialogue. One of those scenes turned out to be Lincoln’s meeting with four Union soldiers – two blacks and two whites. Of the four soldiers, only the first black soldier – portrayed by Colman Domingo – managed to engage in a relaxed conversation with the President. The two white soldiers behaved like ardent fanboys in Lincoln’s presence and one of them – portrayed by actor Luke Haas – ended up reciting the Gettysburg Address. The scene ended with the other black soldier – portrayed by British actor David Oyelowo – also reciting the speech. Not only did I find this slightly pompous, but also choked with Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality, something I have never really cared for. Following Lincoln’s death, Spielberg and Kutchner ended the movie with a flashback of the President reciting his second inaugural address. I cannot say how the pair should have ended the movie. But I wish they had not done with a speech. All it did was urge me to leave the movie theater as soon as possible. Janusz Kamiński is a first-rate cinematographer, but I can honestly say that I found his photography in “LINCOLN” not particularly impressive. In fact, I found it rather drab. Drab colors in a costume picture is not something I usually look forward to.
The movie also featured a few historical inaccuracies. Usually, I have nothing against this if it works for the story. The problem is that the inaccuracies in “LINCOLN” did not serve the story. I found them unnecessary. Lincoln’s meeting with the four Union soldiers allowed Oyelowo’s character to expressed his displeasure at the U.S. Army’s lack of black officers and the indignity of pay lower than white soldiers. The problem with this rant is that before January 1865, the U.S. Army had at least 100 to 200 black officers. And Congress had granted equal pay and benefits to black troops by June 1864. Thirty-three year-old actor Lee Pace portrayed Democratic New York Congressman Fernando Wood, an ardent opponent of abolition. In reality, Wood was at least 52 years old in January 1865. Another scene featured a White House reception that featured a meeting between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and some of the Radical Republicans like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Kutchner had Mary face Senator Sumner with a warm greeting, before she deliberately cut him off to face Congressman Stevens. The movie made it clear that the First Lady disliked the Radical Republicans, whom she viewed as personal enemies of her husband. Yet, the manner in which she disregarded Senator Sumner was completely misleading . . . especially since the senator and the First Lady had been close friends since the early months of Lincoln’s presidency. In reality, Mary Lincoln’s political views were more radical than her husband’s. But due to her background as the daughter of a Kentucky slaveowner, most of the Radical Republicans viewed her as soft on abolition and a possible Confederate sympathizer.
Thankfully, the good in “LINCOLN” outweighed the bad. More than outweighed the bad. Recalling my original assumption that “LINCOLN” would turn out to be some pretentious film weighed down by boring dialogue and speeches, I can happily say that the movie’s look at American politics during the Civil War proved to be a great deal more lively. Yes, the movie did feature a few pretentious scenes. However, “LINCOLN” turned out to be a tightly woven tale about the 16th President’s efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the end of January 1865. In many ways, the movie’s plot reminded me of the 2007 film, “AMAZING GRACE”, which featured William Wilberforce’s effort to abolish Britain’s slave trade during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Unlike the 2007, “LINCOLN” proved to be more tightly focused and featured a more earthy and sometimes humorous look at American politics at play. One of the movie’s successes proved to be its focus on the efforts of the three lobbyists, whom I ended up dubbing the “Three Musketeers”, to recruit lame duck Democrats to vote for passage of the amendment. In fact these scenes featuring James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson proved to be among the funniest in the film. The movie also featured the tribulations Lincoln experienced with his immediate family – namely the volatile behavior of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and his oldest son Robert Lincoln’s determination to join the Army – during this difficult period in which his attention toward the amendment’s passage. More importantly, the movie on a political situation rarely mentioned in movies about Lincoln – namely the political conflicts that nearly divided the Republican Party during the Civil War. Not only did Lincoln find himself at odds with leading Democrats such as Fernando Wood of New York and George Pendleton of Ohio; but also with Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens who distrusted Lincoln’s moderate stance on abolition and even his fellow conservative Republicans like Frances and Montgomery Blair, whose push for reconciliation with the Confederates threatened the amendment.
Now one might say that is a lot for a 150 minutes film about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. And they would be right. But for some reason, it worked, thanks to Spielberg’s direction and Kutchner’s screenplay. One, for a movie with a running time between two to three hours, I found it well paced. Not once did the pacing dragged to a halt or put me to sleep. “LINCOLN” also attracted a good number of criticism from certain circles. Some have pointed out that the film seemed to claim that Lincoln kick started the campaign for the amendment. The movie never really made this claim. Historians know that the Republican controlled U.S. Senate had already passed the amendment back in April 1864. But the Republicans did not control the House of Representatives and it took another nine-and-a-half months to get the House to pass it. For reasons that still baffle many historians, Lincoln suddenly became interested in getting the amendment passed before his second inauguration – something that would have been unnecessary if he had waited for a Republican controlled Congress two months later.
Many had complained about the film’s oversimplification of African-Americans’ roles in the abolition of slavery. I would have agreed if the film’s focus on abolition had been a little more broad and had began during the war’s first year; or if it had been about the role of blacks in the abolition of slavery during the war. Actually, I am still looking forward to a Hollywood production on Frederick Douglass, but something tells me I will be holding my breath. But with the movie mainly focused on the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, I suspect this would not have been possible. Some claimed that the African-American merely hung around and waited for the amendment’s passage. I would have agreed if it were not for Lincoln’s encounter with the Union soldiers at the beginning of the film; Lincoln valet William Slade’s day-to-day dealings with the First Family, and the film’s focus on Elizabeth Keckley’s attention to the political wrangling surrounding the amendment. One scene focused on Mrs. Keckley’s conversation with Lincoln on the consequences of the amendment and another featured a tense moment in which she walked out on the proceedings after Thaddeus Stevens was forced to refute his earlier claims about equality between the races in order to win further Democratic support.
Aside from my complaints about the movie’s drab photography, I can honestly say that from a visual point of view,“LINCOLN” did an excellent job in re-creating Washington D.C. during the last year of the Civil War. Production designer Rick Carter really had his work cut out and as far as I am concerned, he did a superb job. He was ably assisted by the art direction team of Curt Beech, David Crank and Leslie McDonald, who still helped to make 1865 Washington D.C. rather colorful, despite the drab photography; along with Jim Erickson and Peter T. Frank’s set decorations. And I found Joanna Johnston’s costumes absolutely exquisite. The scene featuring the Lincolns’ reception at the White House was a perfect opportunity to admire Johnston’s re-creation of mid 19th century fashion. I can honestly say that I did not find John Williams’ score for the movie particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it blended very well with the story and not a note seemed out of place.
“LINCOLN” not only featured a very large cast, but also a great number of first-rate performances. It would take me forever to point out the good performances one-by one, so I will focus on those that really caught my attention. The man of the hour is Daniel Day-Lewis, who has deservedly won accolades for his portrayal of the 16th President. I could go into rapture over his performance, but what is the point? It is easy to see that Abraham Lincoln could be viewed as one of his best roles and that he is a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. If Day-Lewis is the man of the hour, then I can honestly say that Sally Field came out of this film as “the woman of the hour. She did a beautiful job in recapturing not only Mary Todd Lincoln’s volatile nature, but political shrewdness. Like Day-Lewis, she seemed to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens has been featured as a character in at least three Hollywood productions. In pro-conservative movies like 1915’s “BIRTH OF A NATION” (upon which the Austin Stoneman character is based) and the 1942 movie on Andrew Johnson called “TENNESSEE JOHNSON”, he has been portrayed as a villain. But in “LINCOLN”, he is portrayed as a fierce and courageous abolitionist by the always wonderful Tommy Lee Jones. The actor did a superb job in capturing the Pennsylvania congressman’s well-known sarcastic wit and determination to end slavery in the U.S. for all time. I would be very surprised if he does not early an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor.
But there were other first-rate performances that also caught my attention. David Strathairn did an excellent and subtle job in capturing the politically savy Secretary of State William H. Seward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt managed to impress me for the third time this year, in his tense and emotional portrayal of the oldest Lincoln sibling, Robert Lincoln, who resented his father’s cool behavior toward him and his mother’s determination to keep him out of the Army. Hal Holbrook, who portrayed Lincoln in two television productions) gave a colorful performance as Lincoln crony, Francis Blair. Gloria Reuben gave a subtle performance as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and companion, Elizabeth Keckley, who displayed an intense interest in the amendment’s passage. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson gave hilarious performances as the three lobbyists hired by Lincoln and Seward to recruit support of the amendment from lame duck Democrats. Stephen Henderson was deliciously sarcastic as Lincoln’s long suffering valet, William Slade. Lee Pace gave a surprisingly effective performance as long-time abolition opponent, Fernando Wood. And I was also impressed by Jackie Earle Haley’s cool portrayal of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy.
As I had stated earlier, I was not really prepared to enjoy “LINCOLN”, despite its Civil War setting. To be honest, the last Spielberg movie I had really enjoyed was 2005’s “MUNICH”. And after the 2011 movie, “WAR HORSE”, I wondered if he had lost his touch. I am happy to say that with “LINCOLN”, he has not. Spielberg could have easily laden this film with over-the-top sentimentality and pretentious rhetoric. Thankfully, his portrayal of pre-20th century American politics proved to be not only exciting, but also colorful. And he had great support from a first-rate production team, Tony Kutchner’s superb screenplay, and excellent performances from a cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis. The Civil War had not been this interesting in quite a while.
Filed under: Movie Review | Tagged: abraham lincoln, bruce mcgill, civil war, dane dehaan, daniel day-lewis, david oyelowo, david strathairn, elizabeth marvel, gloria reuben, hal holbrook, history, jackie earle haley, james spader, jared harris, john hawkes, joseph gordon-levitt, lee pace, luke haas, peter mcrobbie, politics, sally field, steven spielberg, tim blake nelson, tommy lee jones, walton goggins, william camp | Leave a comment »