Tuesday, January 15, 2013


The first film I saw in 2013 was Lincoln while visiting my father in Las Vegas over the New Year's break.

Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field & Tommy Lee Jones; directed by Steven Spielberg; (2012) - Official Website

Lincoln was partially based on the book Team of Rivals by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I read and greatly enjoyed that book.  Although the book covers Lincoln's entire presidency, the film concerns itself with the last four month's of his.  In particular, the film focuses on the Lincoln administrations efforts to get the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution passed by the House of Representatives (the Senate had already passed it).  Lincoln is racing the clock as a) the 38th Congress was lame duck after the November 1864 elections and b) the Civil War was winding down and Lincoln was concerned the end of the war would take away the motivation to pass the amendment.

The film spends time explaining the mood of the common man, the motivations of the Congressman and Lincoln's rationale for pushing the amendment while the 38th Congress was in session.  This bring me to the first problem with Lincoln.  It was too pedantic.  I consider myself to have an above average knowledge of US history and some of the items in the film were new or surprising to me.  That by itself isn't a bad thing but the film runs 2.5 hours and could have been shorter without losing much by selective editing.

There were many small detail I picked up on that didn't add much to the plot.  Lincoln's chief personal secretaries were John Nickolay and John Hay (a future Secretary of State).  They actually lived in the White House; sharing a bedroom.  In one scene, Lincoln goes to their bedroom to send a telegram I believe.  That must have seemed odd to some people that the President would go their rooming house or that they even lived together.  Hal Holbrook plays Preston Blair who, in the film, claims to be the founder of the Republican Party.  That claim is debatable but more interesting to me is that Blair lived on the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.  He had lived there since the Jackson administration to which he was an unofficial adviser.  That house, known as Blair House, is now owned by the federal government and is the official lodging for guest of the President.  During the Truman administration, the White House was being remodeled and Truman lived at Blair House.  In 1950, Puerto Rican separatists attempted to assassinate Truman at Blair House.

Spielberg also seemed to want as much historical accuracy as possible.  The results is a huge cast.  Some directors would have consolidated and eliminated characters but Spielberg seemed set to give many Congressman "speaking parts."  This made it difficult to keep track of the characters.

As the film progresses, Lincoln fades to the background.  By modern standards, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) takes an unusually active role getting the amendment through the House.  He and Lincoln have to navigate three factions - the Copperhead Democrats who are opposed to the element, the Radical Republicans who want to push equal rights as far as they can and Conservative Republicans who were more concerned with ending the war and bringing the confederate states back into the Union.  Towards that end, the Conservative Republicans were worried the 13th Amendment would prolong the war or create a permanent wedge in the post-war Union.

The maneuvering of these various factions is shown in great detail.  Seward commissions an operative (James Spader) to work on lining up lame-duck Democrats to vote for the Amendment in exchange for government jobs.  All this is kind of interesting but it has the unintended effect of equating the issue of slavery (human bondage) with political gamesmanship.  We see the sausage being made...

Lincoln as played by Daniel Day-Lewis is full of stories which don't always make his point and put off those he is talking to.  Lincoln seems equally concerned with his political legacy and the inherent inhumanity of slavery.  The immorality of slavery is glossed over for long periods in Lincoln.  Indeed the most ardent advocate for the amendment is Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA) who we learn has an African American housekeeper (S. Epatha Merkerson) whom he shares a bed with (in real life, the housekeeper was mixed race or mulatto to use the parlance of the day).  In fact, the most outlandish item in the film is when Stevens takes the official (and only) roll call of the amendment vote home with him to his housekeeper.  That strikes me as pure Spielberg hokum.

Although Lincoln is the most Oscar nominated film of 2012 and has the inside track for Best Picture, I wasn't quite as impressed.  The self-importance of the film didn't match the quality of the film.  Frankly, I think a different director would have made a better film.  Spielberg's inclination towards sentimentality and his power to resist edits or interference likely resulted in a film I found disappointing.  It's far from being a bad film but sometimes less is more.

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