The Steven Spielberg film Lincoln is exactly what you expect: a tight, interesting, well-written docudrama about an extraordinarily important but frequently over-simplified part of American history. So points for helping to bring that back to the forefront for those willing to watch it.
But, surprisingly, it isn’t really that much about Lincoln. And while the Civil War is central to the story as a catalyst, the movie is about his push, fresh off his reelection in 1864, to get the 13th Amendment passed to abolish slavery in the United States.
Sure, it’s a Hollywood docudrama, simplifying some aspects, embellishing others, and taking some liberties with the truth, but generally sticking to the important points of the history. Which might cause problems for those who don’t understand the politics of congress which still largely continue to this day.
There are a lot of assumptions made in this movie: that you know a lot of the history of the time, that you know about Lincoln’s life to that point and some of the demons he’s had to face throughout that life, that you understand his relationship with his wife and sons, and that you fully grasp the deeply divided nation and congress. But at the same time, you’re shown just how similar our government of today is to that of 150 years ago–votes are still bought and sold, divisiveness is a given, and rancor between the sides is expressed publicly.
This is a Spielberg film like Schindler’s List, where he tells the story powerfully and lets the visuals take a back seat to the acting. So many of the interior scenes are dark and grey and smoky that it’s jarring when there are outdoor daytime shots–and that seems to be by design. The Civil War is a major player in the story but isn’t fully visible–we see battles only from a distance or after their conclusion, and see the scars and pain all too clearly in brief displays scattered throughout the movie. And slavery–and more importantly, prejudice–is a constant throughout the film, which causes Lincoln to ask an important question about the 13th Amendment: what happens after it’s passed and ratified?
The acting is excellent. It’s easy to forget that Daniel Day-Lewis is acting as Lincoln. Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln more brilliantly than I’ve seen elsewhere. And there are so many other top name stars in the film that are either nearly unrecognizable or nicely understated that you don’t give them a second thought.
There isn’t “action” in the film, but it isn’t paced so slowly that you get bored–and even the long scenes are important enough that they move along and keep the story going. But if you’re one of those people who grades a film based on the number of things blowing up on-screen, you won’t find that here. In fact, even Lincoln’s assassination happens off-screen.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that I think in all of the political discussion and trying to win votes, there isn’t a clearer discussion of why the amendment was important–Lincoln explains several times, but it’s always in that way that leaders do in movies: through parables, anecdotes and riddles. Some people will get the point, but sometimes, it’s just good to hit someone over the head with the point just once.
Four out of Five Stars.
See you tomorrow.