For a film about history or for a study of a man, go elsewhere. Lincoln is neither.
Instead this latest most-Hollywood treatment of one America’s true superlatives — the country’s most revered, most complex, most studied and most misunderstood politician — is part Steven Spielberg feel-good morality tale, part “political procedural” drama (bet that producers’ meeting was fun), and part Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle. This is a problem. The subject matter and the leading man deserved more.
The main plot points of Abraham Lincoln’s life are known to most: slaves were freed, Civil War won, assassinated shortly thereafter. There’s much, much more to know, of course – the tribulations and trials as a young man on the frontier, early political failures leading to the presidency, an office many considered weak, and then the unheard-of expansion of executive power during the Civil War.
We don’t get this Lincoln. The hero in Lincoln is already a legend the first time he appears on-screen, his most-formative and most-challenging times behind him, and a convenient ray of light illuminating the beatific face the first time seen on-screen (in case the audience missed the point that this is an important, rare and magical dude).
Steven Spielberg’s film catches up with Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln in the final months of his life, when his biggest challenge is not moral but political: pushing through a reluctant, partisan Congress controversial legislation: the 13th Amendment, which will abolish slavery.
Unlike the causes of the war itself, “Lincoln” is unambiguous: it’s all about slavery. Or at least the end of it. Or at least the Congressional horse-trading, wheedling, bullying, and outright bribing among privileged white folk required to get a two-thirds vote to approve its abolition (a tale political wonks may adore, in part thanks to Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of radical liberal Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens).
That’s the main drive of film in the two hours and 15 minutes after that first plot point. But as other reviewers have noted, for a movie ostensibly about the end of America’s most-reprehensible institution, there aren’t very many black people in it. Of the parade of familiar faces from film, television, and HBO series that fill the beautiful scenery, there are perhaps two notable black actors with more than a handful of lines. Both of Lincoln’s sons, ancillary to the plot, get more screen time.
The film’s main draw is clearly Day-Lewis’s portrayal of America’s most-complex historical figure. He does well to humanize a figure that has already been deified on screen as well as in history (“No one else is loved as much as you,” a wide-eyed Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) tells her husband within the first ten minutes).
That’s not exactly true. For all that Lincoln did that was good and legendary by history’s standards, he did plenty else dirty, and was disliked by plenty people, North and South. Yet he achieved remarkable success in his path from the dirt-floor cabin where he was birthed to the pantheon of America’s greatest statesmen. This unique set of circumstances that drew out his political genius is hinted at – the abuse of the office and curtailment of the Constitution in order to bring about the common good, the mastery of oratory and the manipulation of people – but not acted out on screen. That’s too bad.
That’s why this subject matter needed better than the Spielberg treatment, which even includes a thinly-veiled political parable easily-applied to today’s times, a few days after an election, with another bitterly-divided Congress mulling moral issues in its day (screenwriter Tony Kushner won his Pulitzer for a play about the LGBT movement, so you can guess what the lesson is).
This is not a filmmaker who deals in grays – he’s a black and white kind of guy, with the good guys and bad guys so obviously in their respective sets that the John Williams soundtrack of the obvious is overkill (guys, this is a sad scene, listen to the sad horn!).
Lincoln the historical figure is not such a black-and-white figure. He needs thoughtful chewing, savoring to determine exactly who he was and what made him that way. In Lincoln’s easily digestible formula, the audience is relieved of making such assessments, and is instead told to bask in the power of his personality. And it’ll be fun for some to do, but others will rue the lost opportunity.