Monday, November 5, 2012


 2.5 / 5 

Remember the old saying, allegedly originated by Otto von Bismarck, that laws are like sausages -- you don't want to watch them being made.

Cinematically, that turns out to be true, as well.  Unfortunately for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a good hour and a half of the movie is devoted to the intricate political machinations that went through obtaining the votes needed in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banished slavery.

So, for those who felt the very best parts of the Star Wars movies were the debates in the Senate chamber, here's the historical epic you've been waiting for.  It's a movie called Lincoln, but for much of its running time, Abraham Lincoln isn't on screen -- and when he is, he's too frequently set dressing, as if the script isn't quite sure what to do with him.

Stoic and somber to a fault, Lincoln presents the 16th President as a near Godlike figure, though one with a decidedly human side.  He's a family man without much of a family: wife Mary is still wracked with grief over the death of her middle son; her youngest runs around the White House interrupting Cabinet meetings with glee; and oldest child Robert feels compelled to enlist in the Civil War.  That leaves Lincoln, the man, with a potentially fascinating set of home-life conflicts that are mostly relegated to the background in this long, stolid film.

At its core is a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis that mesmerizes in its certainty.  His Lincoln is always in command, and Day-Lewis hints at the complexities underneath, at the yearning to understand the hearts of the men fighting what was, essentially, his war -- the only issue that mattered during his campaigning.  Popular culture has painted Lincoln as a preternaturally wise man, almost Biblical; here, he is allowed to be more human. Barely.

In a film that desperately needs more high points, the highest is a small scene between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, a bit miscast but effective).  She claims he has made it impossible for her to grieve the loss of her son; he says he is weary because it is the only thing she has done -- before offering her a painful truth: that his own grief is so strong, so overpowering, that were he to give into it, nothing would remain.  Not long later, another scene between them gets to the heart of their relationship with three words: "They don't understand," the President tells the First Lady when she wonders what people think of their difficult relationship.

Here in these scenes we glimpse what Lincoln could have been.  We might have been given movie that enlightened our understanding of Abraham Lincoln by helping us see how he lived between the speeches and the campaigning.  It has those scenes, but they are too few and lumped toward the end. Only in them does Lincoln finally lurch to vivid life, momentarily.

Whether you can enjoy the rest of the film can in large part be answered by how you did on your Civil War history tests -- whether you know who the players are.  Let's start, for instance with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and William Seward (David Strathairn); are these names you remember from high-school history?  Do you know what role they played?  Why they were important?  Would it give you a little thrill to see them on screen?

Civil War scholars will have a lot of fun at Lincoln.  The rest of us, less so.  It takes a scorecard and an immeasurably large amount of patience to slog through the first 90 minutes of Lincoln.

We live in a nation perhaps more divided than at any time since the Civil War, and Lincoln had an opportunity to show us what the cost of that divisiveness is -- and to provide us insight into the kind of person who can heal it.  We leave Lincoln, though, knowing about as much as we did coming in.  Abraham Lincoln helped end slavery.  The how is perhaps the easy part, though Tony Kushner's script makes it feel difficult.  The why remains a mystery, other than a sad truth: Politics is about expediency now and it was just as much then.  A movie about the end of slavery and the man who stood up for those without a voice should have been more than just a movie about legislative sausage-making.

Viewed Oct. 29, 2012


  1. I have to respectfuly disagree, the movie was not about him as a man but him as a President and what he did. I am by no means a "Civil War Scholar" but I do remember my history lessons that the nuns beat in to me those many years ago and throughly enjoyed the movie.

  2. Disagreement and discourse is good. I may have to see it again and re-evaluate my take on "Lincoln," but for now, at least, my opinion holds.