Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is almost as much of a mess as the War Between the States. Its truncated script — by playwright Tony Kushner, based loosely on admitted plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals” — sets out to cover Lincoln’s backroom manipulations to advance the Emancipation Proclamation through Congress as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Though the version I saw at a premiere at the New York Film Festival — with Steven Spielberg and high-profile cast members in attendance — was presented as “unfinished,” it seems unlikely that significant alterations will be made to the film. One could hope! Nothing less than a complete rewrite and re-filming could address the huge problems here.
Glorified cameo appearances by a cast of tens dare the audience to guess at the personal and political motivations of even the most developed supporting characters. Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of Republican House Leader Thaddeus Stevens is a case in point. Most embarrassing is the film’s fake-looking lighting design — a reference to the bleach bypass process Spielberg used on "Minority Report" — that glares from behind the window of every sound-stage set representing interior locations, such as those in the White House. Sure, the Civil War was bad, but surely the sun still existed. Of course, as anyone even vaguely familiar with Daniel Day Lewis’s acting prowess could guess, the film finds firm footing in Day Lewis’s mesmerizing portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. If Daniel Day Lewis isn’t our greatest living film actor, I don’t know who is.
From the opening scene, in which a couple of Yankee soldiers recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address back to its author, Daniel Day Lewis inhabits every molecule of the president who infamously suspended habeas corpus and trashed the Constitution in order to wage an illegal war of economic conquest against the Confederacy.
Freeing the slaves? That wasn't Lincoln's objective. Anyone who has bothered to look beyond the elementary school propaganda version of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency knows that Lincoln never attempted to disguise his racist views toward “Negroes.”
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”
The quote comes from Lincoln’s fourth debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858. But you'd never know from Spielberg's sanitized “Lincoln” that America’s 16th president espoused such public disdain for the “black race.” What the film does is illuminate the illicit lengths to which Lincoln went in order to ram the Emancipation Proclamation through a rump Congress — a strategy to break the South economically. No amount of intimidation or bribery was beneath Lincoln’s Republican cabinet of “rivals.”
“Lincoln” obviously fails as a history lesson. The movie also fails as a brief political epic. However, it does make its mark as a piece of political historical propaganda. Less character study than a showcase for Daniel Day Lewis to inhabit an iconic character, “Lincoln” is nevertheless entertaining. Some ground could have been made up, had the filmmakers not stuck on an obligatory sequence about Lincoln’s assassination, since "Lincoln” is not a biopic but a look at one historical moment. Incorporating the superfluous nod to Lincoln’s untimely demise comes across as so much narrative fat.
See the film for Daniel Day Lewis. As for the “history lesson” on display, take it with a grain of salt.
Rated PG-13. 132 mins.
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