The drumbeat to Oscar glory is already being heard. The publicity machine is well-oiled, and all across the United States, often in hushed reverential tones, people are asking: “Have you seen ‘Lincoln?’ More often than not, the question comes in a whisper draped in awe. At some point during its march to glory, it’s going to become a mortal sin to question the importance of this movie about President Abraham Lincoln and the vote supporting the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the House Of Representatives in 1865.
I have not seen this kind of rush to judgment since “Avatar.” And “Titanic” before that. Movies are one of the great pleasures we have. But no one should ever take what is depicted in a historical film at face value. Certainly not regarding “Lincoln.”
While watching the picture, I was mightily impressed by what was on screen in terms of its extraordinary visual quality. As “Lincoln” unreeled, with a fascinating performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln at its heart, I came to the realization that I was seeing two movies. One belonged to director Steven Spielberg and the other belonged to screenwriter Tony Kushner. The film is based on selected passages from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 944-page book, “Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln.”
The thrust of the movie is simple, but the politics at play are complex. In 1865, the brutal, bloody, tragic, and ultimately pointless American Civil War is slowly winding down to its conclusion. President Lincoln wants to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which will end slavery as a constant in American society. The president has a problem, and it’s a political one. The law to end slavery must be approved in the House before the war ends. The U.S. Senate has long supported the act. Lincoln is battling the clock. If peace comes first, the states in the Confederation will return to the Union, and they will most assuredly help vote down the bill. A readily reachable peace between the North and the South would save tens of thousands of lives. But peace would doom the anti-slavery amendment. The House is reluctant to move on the measure. As depicted in the film, it’s a rowdy bunch. Lincoln’s task is to garner enough votes to pass the measure before the war ends. And these votes must be attained any way Lincoln can rustle them up. Like his nation, Lincoln faces his own great divide. End the war. Or end slavery. Lincoln’s crises of conscience is the driving point of the movie.
From a cinematic standpoint, Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a treasure. There are images of simple beauty as when the president’s young son Tad, a privileged white child, mesmerized by what he sees, looks at glass plate photographs of black slave children by candlelight. Tad, well-played by Gulliver McGrath, is seen often in the movie. He’s a nice calming effect for his father during these tense times. And there are images of raw power, as when the camera tracks over the bodies of fallen soldiers on the battlefield.
There is little of the Civil War itself in “Lincoln,” but what there is reminds us of the risks men take and the pitfalls they create.
Credit Spielberg’s direction and choice of camera angles with some scenes that enliven the film. The sequence involving Lincoln and the Morse Code operators is done exceptionally well. Lincoln and his wife Mary have arguments that crackle with the tensions of average people. The waiting area outside the president’s office, filled as it is with ordinary citizens with their hands-out, scores of petitioners looking for favors, tells us that security was not a by-word in 1865. If you have a complaint, merely walk into the White House and wait your turn to engage the president. To get votes for the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln was a political manipulator, a horse trader. “You want those forty acres in Ohio your uncle promised you? Get your Congressman to vote yes on my amendment.” Spielberg frames all of these scenes in ways that engage the audience.
The movie’s beautiful cinematography is by Janusz Kaminski. It’s as if it were another character, adding a luster and a quality that impresses. Visuals are cold and hard in outdoor scenes and muted with rich tones indoors. The camera moves when it’s necessary, never obtrusive, always observant. The musical score by John Williams is perfectly understated. Editing by Michael Kahn is flawless. I didn’t see a bad cut. Costumes by Joanna Johnston and production values overseen by Rick Carter add insight. The Make-up and Hair credits show scores of craftspeople involved. An historical era has rarely looked this good.
Day-Lewis delivers a Lincoln who is demanding when he needs to be, whimsical when it suits him, and conflicted at every turn. The actor has chosen a voice that comes from written descriptions. It could be Lincoln’s, but we really don’t know. What’s important is that Day-Lewis makes it believable. It works. Is another Academy Award for best actor his? Perhaps not. There’s John Hawkes waiting in the wings for his role as a man stricken with polio in “The Sessions.” Hawkes does many fine things in his film, but it’s the reaction of the tearful audience that confirms the emotional power the actor showcases. A good actor takes moviegoers on a journey. They are with him, readily following his time on the screen. Happy to laugh. Willing to cry. When it succeeds it’s part of the magic of the movies. Hawkes succeeds mightily. Day-Lewis’s strong performance is an invention, a good one to be sure. Hawkes’s quiet performance is rooted in the human condition. His is better.
It would be difficult to provide highlights of the more than 150-speaking parts in “Lincoln” But I do want to single out some, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. There’s a moment when Mrs. Lincoln complains that history will judge her as a crank, a crazy person. Field delivers the line, which gets a laugh, with an impeccable reading, nicely blending despair and a touch of wit. Does she have a second best actress Oscar actress in her future? Well, that depends on whether or not Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays the little girl in “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” gets nominated in the best actress or best supporting actress category. Wallis’s is the performance to beat regardless of where she’s nominated. And if the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences ignores her, it will need to close up shop.
I especially liked David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Hal Holbrook as political operative Preston Blair, Lee Pace as an eager young Democrat in the House, and Jared Harris as General Ulysses S. Grant. Strathairn and Holbrook show you what can be done with character roles with substance. Your eye is immediately drawn to them, even when they are in scenes with Day-Lewis.
Others are good, but these four stand out. Tommie Lee Jones as a Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens is less good than he should be. Stevens was a firebrand. Jones plays him with a lot of woe but not enough fire. He wears a dreadful wig that draws too much attention, thus violating a tenet of the theater: never let the wig do the acting. By the way, that wig is a gimmick that I will address.
There are not many women in “Lincoln,” which means Field has more of a responsibility to balance the cast, which she does admirably.
Screenwriter Kushner’s “Lincoln” is long, drawn-out and, at times, repetitious. The movie clocks in at 149 minutes. You shouldn’t blame some audience members if ennui sets in. The failings with Kushner’s writing are many. At the start of the film, very young black and white soldiers for the North are in awe that Lincoln has visited the front. The young black men begin to recite the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the president’s executive order that freed the slaves. However, rather than focus on the power and emotion of having blacks facing Lincoln, reading his own words back to him, Kushner also has white soldiers contribute to the reading, which wrongly draws attention away from the black men. The emotion and power is dissipated. The strength of the moment is missed.
Kushner presents the members of the House Of Representatives as a monumental gang of uncontrollable rabble. Why is that? The focus of their scenes, and there are too many of them, is the nasty invective the Congressmen hurl at each other, crude put-downs that are insulting in that “your mother’s a donkey and your father’s a monkey” way. Juvenile to be sure. Why isn’t the focus on the Thirteenth Amendment, the important act they must pass? Where are the great ideas in these scenes? And where is the one vital speech that belongs in a movie like this? Where is that Jimmy Stewart transitional moment from “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington?” Where’s the oratory? Does Kushner really expect us to believe that amidst all the vitriolic statements being thrown around the House Chamber like snowballs on a playground, not one Congressman rose up and held the rabble spellbound? Not one?
Kushner wants us to compare the 1865 House Of Representatives to today’s malfunctioning House. It’s too obvious and too simplistic. I’m sure all sessions of Congress seem chaotic if compromise is the order of the day and hundreds of separate agendas are at play. And contemporary moviegoers need to be aware that 1865 Democrats and Republicans were as different as night and day from the members of today’s two major political parties. It’s also important to note that abolishing slavery did not grant civil rights to freed black men and women in the United States. That freedom wouldn’t come for another century. In fact, there’s a reference to possible civil rights in the film, with one character questioning that possibility in sneering tones. Is Lincoln himself complicit, due to political expediency, in denying civil rights to four million black citizens? Does this tarnish his greatness? There’s a unexplored moral dilemma here. Spielberg and Kushner’s “Lincoln” doesn’t focus on that aspect of history.
Time and time again, drawing from his theatrical bag of tricks, Kushner, a playwright of prodigious accomplishments, forgets he’s written a movie, not a stage play. I’m not sure if Shakespeare would be proud, but he would certainly recognize Kushner’s use of the familiar device of the comic Greek chorus. You know, those peripheral characters who pop in and out of scenes and comment on the goings-on. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern types. In “Lincoln,” there is a trio of political fixers, who are doing Lincoln’s bidding and rounding up votes with threats and intimidation and backroom deals. This trio has been created by Kushner to get laughs. Yes, they get the expected laughs, but every time they show up on screen, they stop the movie in its tracks. These mutton-chop Marx Brothers are played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and the aforementioned Mr. Hawkes. It’s as if they are acting in a completely different film. Spielberg shares a little of the blame here. Kushner wrote the parts, but the director let’s these characters run roughshod over the proceedings.
Another hoary theatrical device that Kushner draws upon is the unexpected surprise. Now, I hold to Critic’s Rule #1, that you never, ever give away the ending of a movie. Even if you know what happened to Lincoln, and you must know what that is, there’s no guarantee that the movie ends at Ford’s Theatre, because the film does keep going on. There was a perfect moment that should have ended “Lincoln,” but the opportunity was missed. Before going to the theater, the president walks away from the camera, down a long White House hallway to his waiting carriage. We sense his solitude as well as his recognition that he has achieved his greatest act. It’s a powerful image. A movie-ending image. Or should have been.
However, before the picture plays out, there is a surprise for moviegoers. This surprise involves Jones as Congressman Stevens and who we see in his house. I won’t tell you who that is, or her role in their little psychodrama, but what happens is phony and put in the film just to get jolt of surprise and a cheap laugh from the audience. You know, titters of the old school. If you see the movie, it involves Stevens borrowing the actual document that is the Thirteenth Amendment to bring home with him. Part of the problem is that the wig that Jones wears again comes to the fore. But the main problem is that we have a Congressman, a white authority figure, handing a piece of paper to someone as if to say, look at what I did for you. Now kiss me. I found this scene smarmy and condescending.
There is something else, something fundamentally more discomforting hanging over Kushner’s screenplay. I recognize that this “Lincoln” is only a small snippet of the history featured in Goodwin’s book, which also means the film is only a small snippet of the actual history of the era. That said, let me ask this question: Where are the black citizens who fought and died to abolish slavery? I’m not going to go into the entire history of the anti-slavery movement, but how is it possible for Kushner to write a screenplay of such extensive length and not even mention the vital black players in the struggle? History alone demands they be mentioned, not just cinematic convention.
Lincoln and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass met a number of times, but Douglass’s presence, even as a part of the dialogue, is non-existent. His key writings are not cited, nor is there a reference to the fact that he was a great orator, a better speaker than some of the buffoons in Congress. Other African-Americans who waged a fierce and dangerous battle against slavery, Harriet Tubman, Alexander Crummell, Henry Highland Garnet, and Amos Noe Freeman, among many others, might as well be ghosts in the dustbin of history. Mere shadows on Kushner’s wall of abolitionist fame. Not even their names are spoken, not in fearful whispers, not proudly aloud.
This failing on Kushner’s part is unacceptable. While sloughing aside black abolitionists, he does grant great importance to a pair of Lincoln’s gloves that he forgets to take on the way to Ford’s Theatre near the end of the film. The president leaves them for his African-American servant to consider as a touchstone of the great man. This servant, named William Slade, is played by Stephen Henderson, a University of Buffalo theater professor and Tony Award-nominated Broadway actor. His brief time on screen is filled with dignity and conflict. His character is not a slave, but a servant to the man whose political wiles and determination freed millions of people enchained because of the color of their skin. What is Mr. Slade thinking? Henderson lets you know with his face and his eyes.
The negative aspect here is that this is the first time Kushner lets us know that Lincoln has a black servant. It’s another scrap from the screenwriter that is supposed to give moviegoers a little a-ha moment. And let’s not fall into a trap here. Regardless of the color of the person doing the job, there is great honor in any position of employment: servant, housekeeper, maid, nanny. The problem is that Kushner keeps using blacks as tokens of surprise. Mrs. Lincoln has a black personal servant, a woman, that she carts around town like an accoutrement to her wardrobe. The servant is like a new handbag that Mary enjoys showing off. In a movie with actual drama in it, the servant would have had a very important speech. Not here.
The only other people of color that have a place at Kushner’s table are a small group of African-Americans that are brought into the viewing gallery in the House Of Representatives before the big vote. Their purpose? Their goal? Their dreams? Who knows? Nothing is explained because they are just more silent black people. We do see some of the abolitionists in the House, including Mr. Stevens, stare at the blacks as if they were astonishing figures in a tableau, the vanguard of some monumental reawakening. You half expected the roof of the building to part and rays of sunshine to pour in. Remember what these Congressional hypocrites are doing. They’re freeing slaves, but they not granting equal rights. And these are not the first blacks to enter the House. Mrs. Lincoln’s servant has been sitting next to her in the chamber, time and time again. Was she a piece of furniture to the representatives? Why didn’t she inspire awe?
I’m not buying the argument that adding some backstory, some black history, would make “Lincoln” an interminably long movie. It only feels long, and perhaps boring, because Kushner keeps stressing the same backroom wheeling and dealing and the same nuttiness in the House. But in actuality, 149-minutes is not long for an epic.
The American release running times of some other movies bear this out. “Gone With The Wind” is 238 minutes long. “Lawrence Of Arabia” is 216 minutes, “Titanic” is 194 minutes, D. W. Griffith‘s “The Birth Of A Nation” is 190 minutes, Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny And Alexander” is 188 minutes, “The Godfather” is 175 minutes. Griffith’s “Intolerance” is 163 minutes, “Nashville” is 159 minutes. “Goodfellas” is 146 minutes, just three minutes shorter than “Lincoln.” Anyone bored during “Goodfellas?”
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has quality acting, outstanding production values, and visual mastery. I relished looking at it and listening to some of it. Not that he needed more benediction, but the film wants to celebrate the mythological importance of Lincoln. It succeeds in doing this. But what it lacks is the humanity of millions of slaves who are at the core of the drama. The movie never shows us the grotesque and dehumanizing mastery of one race over another. And, as noted, it never shows us the African-Americans who are involved in the struggle for the liberation of the slaves.
If you took someone into a movie theater who had absolutely no knowledge of American history and had them watch “Lincoln,” they would have no idea what all those white men were arguing about, none. In this movie, slavery is an invisible theatrical device.
Michael can be reached at Movierole@aol.com