My father was a huge Civil War history enthusiast. And by using the term “Civil War”, of course I mean the American Civil War. I mean, like who cares about the inner conflicts that like occurred in other nations anyway, right? Okay fine, when Ken Burns gets around to making documentaries on all those other conflicts, maybe I’ll check them out, but the odds on that happening are extraordinary.
One year we got my dad the colossal three-volume set of Shelby Foote’s narrative of the War. Foote was a talking head in the Civil War documentary that Ken Burns directed, so this book set was a natural. After Dad passed away, I was fortunate enough to get those volumes. Since I never read it myself, I decided to dig into this massive amount of history. When I cracked open the first volume, I discovered something shocking: I don’t think my dad ever read a single page of it. The binding didn’t even appear broken. No dents or scuff marks, dog-eared pages or highlighted sections. Nothing. It was pristine.
How could this be? I thought Dad was a history buff. Now I wonder… Did he read any of the other Civil War-themed books we got him? The ones on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain or James Longstreet or William T. Sherman or Jefferson Davis? There were the copious books of photographs and battles and ironclad ships and a hundred thousand other topics. But did he ever actually read them? Personally, I know that if I didn’t read about items that interested me, it would be terribly unfulfilling. In an oddly contrived coincidence, this brings to my mind a relevant movie that I’m segwaying into via a most blunt and ham-fisted manner.
As I read hundreds of pages of the Foote narrative, I recalled that Steven Spielberg had made Lincoln back in 2012. I never saw it at the time, but I thought that as it pertains to the Civil War, I’d give it a try. After all, Daniel Day-Lewis had been praised upwards and downwards and every direction in-between for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. And Spielberg is no slouch in that whole movie direction department, so it should be great, right?
Hm. Well… Hm. Since it has been a number of years post-release at this point, why don’t I go in more semi-manageable observational chunks about the film? Oh and do I even have to mention that there will be spoilers going forward? I mean the events of the film took place over 150 years ago. If you don’t know them by now, you really should get out and read more. Please? You really should.
- Daniel Day-Lewis is a revelation. He so embodies the Lincoln character that it becomes impossible to distinguish the two apart. Now since I never heard Lincoln speak or watched Instagram videos of him, I cannot say definitively that Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln. But DD-L is always fantastic to watch. He captivates the attention so much that when he’s not on-screen, the film misses the electricity of his presence. Thankfully, there aren’t huge slabs of the movie without him. I normally have no regard for the Academy Award, but in this instance, Daniel Day-Lewis richly deserved the Best Actor acknowledgement. A performance for the ages.
- The rest of the cast is…okay. Tommy Lee Jones is good as Thaddeus Stevens, I just wish he was given more to do. There are too many scenes of him just contemplatively looking at things. Now this approach is fine in something like No Country for Old Men. But in Lincoln, where he plays abolitionist firebrand Stevens, it just makes you wonder how much more he could have been used. While Stevens has a nice coda that certainly gives him a vested interest for the amendment’s passage, I wish it were alluded to earlier so the audience knew that the stakes were even higher for him.
- The same is true of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. She’s a good choice, playing the role with just enough emotional distress that portraying Mrs. Lincoln requires. She’s a picture of unbalance and poise, a tough line to walk but Field does so admirably. However, she’s not in the picture enough. Her scenes with Day-Lewis are excellent but, like Jones, she’s under-utilized.
- James Spader portrays an unscrupulous behind-the-scenes vote briber who has a character name that I’m too lazy to look up. Frankly, as he’s the best James Spader in the business, he simply James Spaders the hell out of the role! Now if only they had Spader bouncing around with his Boston Legal co-star William Shatner as a bribing compatriot, then that would have been even better! (Of course, my deep love for Shatner makes me horrendously biased, but I’m still noting this as a missed opportunity.)
- The production design is top-notch and another richly deserved Academy Award was given to Lincoln in this field. The era just jumps off the screen and you are immersed into the world of 1865 America. Same goes for costuming, props, set design, everything. The film’s universe is set throughout. I can even smell the lamps burning, the mud of the street, the horses, the cigars. Quite an achievement.
- Now here comes a rather big hiccup in the film: it was mistitled. Since I did no preparation for this movie other than knowing who directed it, who starred in it, and assuming that Abraham Lincoln would hopefully be in it, I was more than surprised that the movie only covers the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency. And even then, it truly only focuses on the January 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment for most of the runtime. This would be fine…if the movie was called The War for the 13th Amendment or The 13th or Lincoln’s Other Civil War. But by calling it just Lincoln, a different expectation is set.
- For instance, the movie is based on a book that examines how Lincoln’s cabinet was made up of political rivals. It talked about how Lincoln had to navigate through those murky waters during a time of great domestic war and upheaval. That sounds like a fantastic movie! Inner conflicts, a incredible outer conflict, dramatic possibilities abound everywhere. But we don’t really see this in Lincoln. Sure, Lincoln butts noggins with Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) a little bit, but not enough. Secretary of War Stanton**(see Footnote #1 ) doesn’t really fight with Lincoln either, so that’s another potential conflict that was blunted. Of course, I imagine that by January 1865, these former rivals are settled into roles, presumably understanding each other’s working dynamic to a better extent. While I’m elated they eventually got along, it does practically nothing for the film’s drama.
- That’s what makes Lincoln’s choice of this limited timeframe so frustrating. According the limited special features on the Blu-ray (which also irritates me but is par for course with Spielberg’s releases), it was stated that the original script was over 500 pages long. Spielberg then jokingly suggested that the script would have been a mini-series on HBO with that length. And you know what, Steve? That’s exactly what should have been done. You already have Daniel Day-Lewis signed up. Why not see his interpretation from the moment Lincoln was first elected president through to his demise in April 1865? How about a 4-part mini-series, with each part covering a year of the Civil War from the perspective of the Lincoln White House? It would have been extraordinary indeed! Instead we get two and a half hours of mostly January 1865. This whole movie is a missed opportunity. (The not using Shatner thing still is at the forefront though!)
- What do we get in Lincoln? At the simplest base, it becomes a movie about the machinations of how one gets a bill passed in Congress. Just like Schoolhouse Rock! without the catchy tunes. Of course, the ante is automatically upped because this vote deals with the 13th Amendment, which would repeal slavery in the United States. Obviously, the historical import cannot be understated. However, there’s been no dramatic build-up to this moment. The viewer is just thrust into the current situation and is forced into caring because of the gravitas of what is at stake here. If there had been time for circumstances to foment and build over the course of a mini-series, then this indeed would be an incredibly dramatic and important lynchpin for the overall story arch.
- There are also many assumptions that the viewing audience already knows their Civil War history, so they can fill in gaps along the way. Fortunately for me, I had a good grounding due to lazy grade school teachers who simply showed the aforementioned Ken Burns Civil War documentary when it came time to learn about that period in the history book. So yes, I know who Seward and Stanton and Grant and such are. Lincoln doesn’t spoon-feed you with laborious text and/or narration about what came prior to this moment. It wants to start in January 1865, which it does, and you better bone up on your history or you’re going to be left in the dust a bit.
- Also, per the limited Blu-ray special features, a goal of the movie was to show the dynamic of Lincoln’s family. So along with Mary Todd, Lincoln’s sons Robert and Tad are present as well. But as his sons aren’t that fully-fleshed out, the dynamic doesn’t really come across. Tad is underdeveloped and only shows up when a scene was needed to show Lincoln being tender and fatherly. Robert is there when they need someone to be whiny and all Joseph Gordon-Levitt-y. Again, and I mean to beat this into the ground: this could have been covered so much better in a mini-series. You would understand Robert’s anger with his father, the lingering impact of the deaths of Lincoln’s other two sons, and the focus on Tad. Instead the boys feel forced into the story to pad the runtime.
- Speaking of the runtime, once the main plot concludes, the movie keeps on going for some reason. The point of this film centers on the passage of the 13th Amendment, which is the film’s natural climax. Once that happens, logically the film should end. But…it…doesn’t. The movie goes from the successful vote to Lincoln going to talk with Grant. Then some more with Mary Todd. Lee surrenders at Appomattox. Then the fateful night at Ford’s Theater, where curiously we don’t see the assassination, but we do see Tad reacting to the news that his father has been shot. Then there’s a moment of Lincoln expiring, Stanton says, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and we recap with a Lincoln speech as the credits then roll. Perhaps the movie should have been called Lincoln: Return of the King. Frustrating.
- Here’s a thought on how to finish better: end the movie with Lincoln surveying the carnage as he talks to Grant. Then have Grant look empathetically after Lincoln as he leaves, show some headshots/text boxes about what happened to the characters, and end with Lincoln’s speech. That would file right in line with the movie they decided to make. And if they didn’t want the blurbs, I’m fine with that since they chose to not have any text at the beginning either. But my overall message is: don’t jam as many events as possible that have nothing to do with your film’s story at large just because you can. With Lincoln, it just became a case of way too much, wedged in way too late.
- I will say that I appreciated the virulent nature of how the House members interacted with each other at that time. That there weren’t more duels or at the very least slap fights is quite shocking. One thing is certain: a current “battle” of tweets just goes to show how weak-kneed today’s politicians have become. Back in 1865, a heated exchange on the floor of the House could result in someone getting a limp after spitting some teeth out. Now THAT’s politics!
Okay fine, I’ll be the one that says it: Steven Spielberg just hasn’t been the same after the one-two punch of Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in 1993. That 4-year gap between those movies and The Lost World: Jurassic Park marks a clear line of demarcation in Spielberg’s career. There would be no more Jaws or Close Encounters or even Hook. There would be A.I. and The Terminal and Ready Player One and Indiana Jones 4. Look at Spielberg’s overall filmography. Now see if you’re more likely to watch and rewatch his films that came out before 1994 or the ones that came afterwards.
That might seem unfair. But Spielberg himself set that bar so very high. Again, take a gander at the films he made from 1975 to 1985. Now look at the films he made from 2005 to 2015. How do the groups compare? Which films do you think will stand the test of time? To put it in simpler terms: are you more likely to sit down and see Temple of Doom again or watch War Horse? (Didn’t even remember War Horse, did you? I know you didn’t. It’s okay.) Lincoln fits squarely in that latter grouping and while having many individual items to commend it, I don’t think it will be a standout effort in Spielberg’s oeuvre.
This is a shame because if anything one should see this film for Daniel Day-Lewis and his remarkable performance. The production value is quite high. Also, on a technical level Lincoln is very competently made; it is Spielberg after all. But in that same respect, I expect more from him. For me, Lincoln reminds me constantly of what could have been onscreen instead of what eventually was released.
At the end of the day, my father had a lot in common with Spielberg. If my dad was still with us, he’d be roughly the same age as Spielberg. Both showed a true passion for what they love. They both enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark. And apparently, they both didn’t read Shelby Foote’s Civil War books either! As I now read those volumes and others, I can sadly see what both Spielberg and my dad were missing.
**Footnote #1: Stanton was played by Bruce McGill who also was D-Day in Animal House. So yes, D-Day could have fought with D. Day-Lewis. How meta! But of course, like the Shatner non-casting, another satisfying opportunity was lost!