I went to see Lincoln last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. The first five minutes was pretty dreadful with Lincoln meeting a couple of black soldiers who repeated the various lines of the Gettysburg Address to him. Ugggghhh. Death by anachronism.
But the film gets down to the business of its plot which is of course the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. It’s dark and sombre with a cast of interesting characters, and Lincoln is well portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis. I had always imagined that Mary Todd was a dull, straightening sort, but who knows if that’s true and it doesn’t make for good cinema, so Sally Field’s Mary much more interesting and compelling First Lady isn’t dull.
The thing that’s so good about the film is its writing and acting. There are four or five scenes which are quite brilliantly written and acted, not least a major screaming match between Abe and Mary which ultimately homes in on their shared grief at the loss of their children.
Weaknesses of the film were that, despite some attempts to add a few warts, Abe is still Mr Nice Guy through and through. Despite the attempt at those warts, Americans really can’t quite get beyond their almost infantile relationship of the President as father and teacher of the nation. (This is the same thing that keeps me away from the West Wing, despite the President’s smartarsed irony he’s just such a Great Guy).
One of it’s biggest weaknesses is a kind of politically correct anachronism regarding race. In his heart of hearts Lincoln was presumably an abolitionist despite his political contortions. He was also someone who seems to have related to black people and this would have had a fair bit to do with his background as a relatively poor country lad. He liked them. But black people would have been treated pretty damn badly as a matter of course in that world in ways that it’s hard to imagine not being drawn into as part of the ordinary discourse of life. The word ‘nigger’ gets used a couple of times but the generalised discrimination of normal everyday life is no-where captured. Had this been done, had we even seen the sainted Abe being drawn into it in some way – as I expect he almost certainly was – it would not only have been more realistic, but also a more powerful anti-racist polemic.
Anyway, go see the movie. It’s a great achievement, and not surprisingly for such an ambitious undertaking, there are a few things that might have been better done.