November 30, 2012 by Zack
The passage of the 13th amendment, which freed all slaves, is pretty much the first passage of Civil Rights in this country. Abraham Lincoln was the man behind it, and he’s always been seen as one of the greatest presidents of all time because of it. It’s a great story, because it was far from easy. The country was locked in a Civil War that in a large part was due to the issue of slavery, and even in the North, Lincoln had his detractors. Even in his own party, Lincoln was not considered a great leader. This is the story that Steven Spielberg intends to tell in his latest film, “Lincoln”.
Unfortunately, the film is so cloying, so pandering, so preachy, that what should be a riveting drama about how one of the most important bills ever passed in this nation, is really just a two and a half hour long sermon with the effectiveness of a loud dog barking in the middle of the night. There is no drama here, no real conflict. There are only a bunch of scruffy, rat-faced, or whiny old white men against the noble, do-no-wrong Messiah, Honest Abe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).
The film begins with a scene between Lincoln visiting troops and is approached by two black men from different regiments. One black man is practically bowing at the feet of Lincoln, while the other piles on exposition to berates Lincoln on not being sincere. From that moment, I sensed trouble. Kushner’s script is so afraid of being misconstrued or taking the risk to be the least bit fair minded, and instead makes sure we all know how wrong slavery was, and how great it was that this bill was to be passed. Well, the whole audience this film is made for is well aware at how wrong it was, and how great the bill was. So, tell a story. But neither Kushner, nor Spielberg, are interested in doing this. They seem more interested in beating us over the head with nobility and sentimentality that, by the last shot, is beyond nauseating.
There is no conviction in the storytelling of this film–it’s more cartoonish than it is historical. The facts are all there, but they’re delivered so simply that it’s hard to believe this is how it really went down. And, with something as urgent as this time was, it’s disingenuous. Lincoln needs votes to secure the bill’s passage–he doesn’t want to wait for the war to end in fear of the South not voting for it. Even as it stands, he won’t get it passed; but he thinks he has a better chance. And the time is “Now, now now!” So 3 men are ordered to “bribe” delegates that are either on the fence, or completely against it. This could’ve been an effective way of showing the power of conviction that Lincoln and his supporters had for the bill–instead, it’s treated as some kind of fun little adventure complete with banter between characters played by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, and accompanied by a plucky soundtrack by John Williams.
In contrast, any time we see the people against the bill, they’re in dark light, such as the scene with the Vice President of the Confederate States (played by Jackie Earle Haley). His scenes make him look like some kind of dark serpent, or evil creature. He’s lit so we only see one eye, one evil looking eye. Scary. Yes, we get it Spielberg. These are the bad guys. But is that really fair to history? Were they all bad guys? Was everyone for the bill good guys? Isn’t this kind of simplifying of sides what got us into the war in the first place? The reality was that there were no good or bad guys; there was a lot of ignorance, and a lot of intolerance. Lincoln’s intentions initially were to keep the country together, no matter what. Whatever his personal views on slavery were, he did have some in the White House.
But Spielberg doesn’t respect the fact that this was how it was done at this time. Sure, we’re 150 years removed and we know how wrong it is. But we’re going back in time here, and there is not one credible character on the other side of the fence. There’s a scene where one of the weak-minded senators says he’s against slavery but he can’t tolerate this bill because it will lead to women voting. Now, I’m sure that mind-set was a lot more prominent than only coming from this one meek individual. But the scene comes across as easily trying to point out how wrong this character was. Well, no kidding! But why trivialize this event by trying to make it so easy to be on one side or the other? What was at stake for the entire nation if the bill was passed or not? None of that is really explored, leaving everything to easy conclusions that couldn’t possibly be accurate at this time.
There are other problems with the script, too. Robert Lincoln (dutifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the Union, but his parents are against it because Mary (Sally Field, in her most Oscar-wringing role yet), doesn’t want to lose another son, after their middle son had died due to illness. She comes off as a raving lunatic, while Lincoln is stoic, and strong. This subplot goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t have anything to do with the main story, nor does it strengthen the theme of the film either.
Lincoln spends a lot of his time in this film making speeches. He comes in a room, he makes a speech. Everyone who is a good guy loves it, everyone who is a bad guy hates it. It goes on like this for the entire duration of the film. His speeches are all the same. He wants what’s best for the country. Yes, we get that. Everyone against him, even at times his friend and his Secretary of State (played by David Strathairn), tries to convince him with horribly unconvincing arguments. I’m not actually even sure why this film is called “Lincoln”. In early drafts of the script it was going to be more of a biopic of Lincoln’s life. But by its final revision, it was narrowed down to passing this amendment. So why isn’t it just called “The Amendment”?
The last scene that shows Lincoln “alive” is the most aggravating. One of his servants looks on as the Great Man in his Top Hat walks down a corridor, admiring how great this man is. Not only do we not ever need to see this shot, but if you haven’t been bludgeoned enough by this time at how Christlike Lincoln is in this film, this scene leaves no doubt.
The simplemindedness of the script is what is most disappointing, though. Is this how far we’ve come intellectually after 150 years that we still can’t bear to look at what the conflict was really about? To be able to look at the other side and be challenged at what they believed as well? I look at the current situation with gay rights. Do you look at everyone who’s against gay marriage and gay rights and say they’re evil? And vice versa, do you look at anyone who is for gay rights and gay marriage as unforgivably bad, or unmistakenly good? Can you tell me every person that’s represented in this film reflects what’s ongoing nowadays? People can be just as ignorant as they were 150 years ago, we have plenty of evidence of that. But we also have come a long way at tolerance. On both sides of the country, you had good and bad, ignorant and educated. If this film was released in the 50’s or early 60’s, the worst I could say about it is that it’s dated. But at least, at that time, we still as a nation were not comfortable with race relations. Sure, racism still exists and always will; but even in films like “American History X”, we get a much more real, cunning, and educated look at how it affects us as a society. That was a powerful, adult film about racism. This film’s almost aimed at children with its simple message that “racism is wrong”.
And if that’s the case, why have all the strong language then? This film is littered with profanity that neither enhances the characters nor gives any scene more flair. In fact, hearing Lincoln use the “s” word almost makes him sound dumber and vulgar. There are scenes that show too much blood and guts for kids to comprehend and handle; and yet, as I said, I can’t see anyone beyond the 5th grade needing to see something like this to shed light on racism.
On top of that, no 5th grader is going to want to spend 2 and a half hours watching old men yell at each other. They have Thanksgiving dinners for that.