I watched Lincoln last night, and it was thrilling to see Daniel Day-Lewis masterfully bring the man to life. But I left the film with a nagging dissatisfaction. Here are some loose and dirty thoughts:

*Spielbergian flourishes. The film opens with mawkishness, and closes with it—Lincoln’s death scene (“Now he belongs with the ages”) is rendered like a wax museum scene, only for Lincoln to be reincarnated before the final credits to deliver his second inaugural. This brief, final scene emerges from a chintzy superimposition of candlelight—it’s jarringly overwrought—but Spielberg’s right to leave us not with Lincoln’s death, but with his words.

*Spielberg has a tendency to signpost moments of emotional importance, often with John Williams’ typically throbbing score. Sometimes he pre-empts them, letting us know with some tentative clarinet notes that Something Important is going to happen. It’s a longstanding habit—as is his use of John Williams—and it remains manipulative and condescending.

*There’s another habit of Spielberg on display here—his desire to jam his epics with elements of multiple genres. Spielberg wants to please us—all of us—and it’s sort of a democratic impulse, I guess, to weave slapstick and romance into high historical drama. But I found it distracting.

*In more hagiographic depictions of Lincoln, his wisdom just is. It appears from a vacuum. But Lincoln does an admirable job of showing us the depth and the weird and melancholic contours of the man. Lincoln’s wisdom was hard-won, emerging from suffering and privation, and sharpened by the introspection of a depressive. The film gets this, Daniel Day-Lewis gets it.

*Another commendable aspect of this film is how well it shows the quality of Lincoln’s intelligence and moralism. What it looks like. Lincoln read, almost exclusively, legal journals and Shakespeare, and these heavily accent his reasoning. While discussing the legality of slavery—and the imperatives of his oath—Lincoln reasons carefully, lawyerly. There’s almost a mathematical precision to his approach to moral issues and the film captures this. It also captures—if downplays—the pragmatism of Abraham Lincoln, nesting it with his idealism.

*Daniel Day-Lewis = revelatory.

*Much of the dialogue is not Kushner’s work—it’s Lincoln’s or the speaker’s. Much of the dialogue was taken from letters and speeches, and the film is weighed down by this lack of naturalism. The words are beautiful, but the speechifying is cloying. Some of the best moments occur in quieter scenes where Kushner’s pen is at work—weirdly, they’re more “natural”. Perhaps it was deference to historical accuracy that led to the characters’ own written words suddenly springing perfectly formed from their mouths in conversation. Perhaps it was deference to Lincoln himself, one of America’s best writers. But there’s a cost to this.

*The assassination. Few of us wanted to see Lincoln splattered over Mary. But the ending was rushed, and, I think, a missed opportunity. There is no doubt that considerable drama could be had with that scene, but it needn’t be the gauche denouement of blood and brain. We come to see Mary’s deep suffering over the death of her young son William, which provides a heartbreaking precedent to the murder of her husband—a close-up of her face, perhaps, and nothing else? Otherwise, given we know how this story ends, cut the film when Lincoln says goodbye to his friends to head to the Ford Theatre. Either way, there was something weak and rushed about the last 15 minutes.

*The strained, damaged quality of the Lincoln marriage doesn’t get much attention, but there is one memorable scene where Lincoln attempts to console his distraught wife, before losing his temper with her melancholic histrionics—

“I couldn’t tolerate you grieving so for Willie because I couldn’t permit it in myself, though I wanted to, Mary. I wanted to crawl under the earth, into the vault with his coffin. I still do. Every day I do. Don’t speak to me about grief.” Mary Todd was a damaged and damaging person, but we only get a small sense of this. Much could be made of their marriage.

*It was a joy to see Lincoln brought alive by one of the finest actors of his generation. To hear, rather than read, Lincoln’s words.

*Finally, I wish Gore Vidal was still around to share his thoughts on the film, though something tells me the cantankerous chap may have refused to watch it if he were.

Your thoughts?

2 Responses to “Lincoln”

  1. William Seward says:

    There’s a lot there and I agree with your thoughts on Spielberg, though I was expecting it to be far worse so it didn’t seem as bad. Still, there’s nothing particularly subtle about his style as you pointed out regarding his tendency to signpost everything. His stuff always ends up being an anthem for America.

    I thought it was good that the film focussed on one bill and the difficulty in getting it through as if it tried to cover too much then it would have lost focus and been nothing at all. You know far more about Lincoln than I so the lack of focus on his marriage etc. didn’t really bother me as much. I agree that the last 15 minutes were pretty weak and lacked substance.

    Daniel Day Lewis was indeed phenomenal but I also thought Tommy Lee Jones was fantastic in the film and played the role very well, and I always like James Spader.

    It was also interesting to me how they portrayed Lincoln. There was some of the reverence I had expected as Lincoln has achieved an almost god-like status in the American mind, but they also showed him (in my eyes) as a pure administrator and politician. His willingness to make deals, the way he used political tactics to get what he wanted (mostly in understanding the importance of delaying events but also how he used the war to have slavery abolished), and his deep understanding of the law to overcome administrative obstacles. In that sense I think he was a true politician rather than the idealist that he is often made out to be, or that Jefferson was.

    I also thought it was interesting how the film still showed that for large portions of American society slavery was still accepted as being necessary and entirely reasonable, while also highlighting an important distinction that allowed for Jim Crow to follow the abolition of slavery –i.e. it was equality in the eyes of the law only and not equality amongst human beings (separate but equal). In that sense, it was quite a false abolition of slavery that wasn’t the case in Britain, France or other European countries (though you could certainly argue that they just had a far less formal or overt version of segregation).

    Further, my frustration remains that the film didn’t really show the historical context as well as I’d like. In that, there was some external pressure for the USA to abolish slavery given that most of the Western world had done so well in advance of them doing it. If you didn’t have a handle on history you could infer from the film that they were indeed the first as it didn’t really discuss that perspective (a perfect opportunity would have been the scene where Lincoln is meeting with his cabinet towards the end and they argue about the timing of ending the war or achieving the abolition of slavery).

  2. goopie says:

    Abraham Lincoln wanted to send all the black people to South America to form their own Country. He seemed to hold the view it was black people and not the slavers who were the problem. The only scene in Spielberg’s film that came close to offering a full view of Lincoln’s attitudes was the one with Elizabeth Keckley, where he patronises her and she replies with a much better grasp of the morality of the situation.

    Spielberg offers his usual mix of American movie cliché, sentimentality and brilliant story telling. The vote in the House is just riveting. George Yeaman’s cathartic cry of ‘I say Aye’ is the defining moment; the American people, white and black, are finally freed from slavery.

    Gore Vidal’s Lincoln offers a more hard headed and complete account. No doubt Vidal would have elegantly savaged the film, as he did with any work that wasn’t his.

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