Lincoln

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.

8 thoughts on “Lincoln

  1. This is the second positive report on this movie from a top source in a day or two. Am not sure I want to risk the film. Am fond of Lincoln in a very Gettysburg way; will I have to have one of the last left of hundreds of heroes of my youth torn down also?

  2. “Safe” is too right! No smashing of shibboleths here, especially not those of the conventional Hollywood biopic, complete with clapping crowds and lachrymose scenes manifesting the protagonist’s generous tenderness. Yuck, for the most part.

    To be fair, the script rises far above the usual (egregiously low) Hollywood standard at times (particularly the discussions of political tactics; the interpersonal character-building stuff however is mostly pretty shallow). Daniel Day Lewis puts in a fine performance as always. But it’s a conventionally lavish bread-and-circuses costume drama, no more.

  3. I do note a lot of US historians disagree with its historical context.

    Nick , you really didn’t watch a lot of the West wing then.

    That is like saying the Mentalist is the same as Castle!

  4. I agree – too much hagiography and too much tiptoeing around current day racial sensitivities too.

    Some terrific individual scenes though, especially the ones set on the floor of the House. I thought the great acting performance of the film was not Day-Lewis’ or Field’s but Tommy-Lee Jones’.

    Historically Lincoln’s wife was far from bland and uninteresting. She struggled with mental (and physical) illness and the death of her children does seem to have precipitated this. And she was said to have a fierce temper too.

    • Ah, come on. Even my (12 yr old) son would say that Tommy Lee Jones was playing the type of “gruff but good hearted” role which he typically does. Nothing wrong with that, just as there was nothing wrong with James Stewart or Cary Grant carrying similar characteristics from movie to movie.

      But I think it beggars credibility to argue that it was a better acting job than Day-Lewis, who seemed to physically transform into the role without (to my mind) giving any appearance of arch overacting.

      But each to there own opinion on the matter of acting, I suppose, no matter how invalid :)

  5. I liked the film a lot, and as I explained in some detail in a post at my blog (once you get past the bit about how my son reacted,) I reckon a hell of a lot of the commentary that some aspect or other seemed unrealistic is actually pretty speculative, if not nitpicking.

    A minor example – a historian who was a consultant says in a recent article that there is no record of Lincoln ever having taken a speech out of his hat; yet I found an interview from 2009 in which he notes that Abe did keep scraps of paper in his hat lining, perhaps more when he was a lawyer. How nitpicky is it then to criticise the screenwriter for imagining this happening again at a minor public function for a bit of light humour?

    I have also read someone say it was unlikely that Abe would have ever spoken to the black seamstress friend of Mrs Lincoln (the real life Elizabeth Keckley), yet reading the Wikipedia entry about her, she was indeed close to Mary and trusted to look after their children, and another site indicates that Abe himself was well liked by White House domestic staff, which included a few blacks as in the film. I therefore find it hard to credit that a short conversation between the President and Keckley on the way into the White House is such a stretch.

    And the same goes for some of the comments by Nicholas in this post. Too bad for Lincoln if he actually was a genuinely warm human being with little to criticise from a character point of view in the last 3 months of his life – the movie would be improved by showing more warts.

    The movie did show tension in the relationship with his wife and eldest son; the whole movie was about his willingness to let underhanded politics happen to get to a result he thought necessary; to even use lawyerly deception to get a vote to happen in Congress. (The bit about the note to Congress is true.) Not warty enough?

    I know, I know: there are ideas Lincoln had and things he said over the years that show his thoughts about how to deal with slavery and blacks was not, ahem, black and white: but surely the movie should not be accused of failing to be an accurate total summation of the man when it is concentrating only on a couple of months before his death, and on particular political fight?

    In fact, just Googling around now, I have found a very good article on the use of history in the film that argues it has made its own, but quite plausible, interpretations regarding motivation.

    I have never read a book about Lincoln, but the movie will likely to inspire me to do so. I particularly like the historical immersion feel of the movie – from what I am reading on the net, the portrayal of the White House is very realistic, with young Tad in uniform having the run of the house, and the Lincolns being very indulgent parents, and Abe himself very loving and affectionate. (Whoops, sorry, Nicholas – not warty enough.) In fact, on that point, one criticism which might be right is that it seems no historian thinks Lincoln would have slapped his oldest son, no matter how disturbed he would be at the idea of his endangering his life.

    Anyway, the only problem with reading about Lincoln is knowing which of the hundreds of books about him is most worth reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.