Saw <i>Lincoln</i> yesterday, and I generally quite liked it. Some remarkably good acting in the movie. Daniel Day Lewis is someone whose work I usually find myself liking in spite of myself, someone who tends to draw attention to himself as an actor even when he shouldn’t. But his Lincoln is bound to be the definitive screen version of the character from here on, he’s laconic and detached but devilishly clever and capable. Laid-back, even. Day Lewis seems to have held his showboating instincts in check this time, leaving space for Tommy Lee Jones to damn near steal the thing with his irascible (and highly lovable) idealistic take on Thaddeus Stevens. The movie largely centers on the fight to pass the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery–as my wife Elizabeth said, it’s sort of like The West Wing with wigs–and I liked the narrative cohesion of it, at least until the end, when the movie’s cohesion gives out as the film struggles to find a proper ending to the story. (Also, why was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s thread anything but a waste of time? I get that it is based off a book and life doesn’t always pay off so neatly, but who said life was anything like the movies?) With respect to the politics of the piece, I found myself liking the movie for its willingness to see backroom deals and favors as a legitimate and important part of the narrative, and that the movie clearly felt these tactics didn’t minimize the accomplishment of ending slavery. I can’t help but like a movie that doesn’t believe an impassioned speech is enough to get good men of conscience to stampede to the other side. This is the sort of political film I like to see. And yet…

For a film that is, essentially, a political movie, the movie doesn’t quite nail the details as well as it should. For one thing, I’m quite sure a motion to table has to actually be seconded and voted upon, not just announced by a Representative and then gaveled in by the Speaker. It’s narrative shorthand at best, and there’s quite a bit of it. To a large extent, the film dumbs down the politics in order to make it more comprehensible to the contemporary moviegoer. The amount of times we hear about the “right” and “conservative Republicans” in this film is quite large, even though the terms were not in popular use during the Civil War era and they refer to concepts alien to the time (though familiar to us). The notion of a movement to keep a strong standing military and low taxes makes little sense considering that Republicans of the era instituted the first progressive income tax, and would maintain a very small military after the Civil War ended. In order to have a “right”–a concept popularized during the Dreyfus Affair in France some decades later–you have to have a “left”, which also didn’t really exist at this time. Marx was at this point in time an obscure economist whose work was mostly ignored, Paris hadn’t even had its brief period under the Communards yet. These terms mean specific things to us, represent specific concepts. They would have meant nothing to people of the time. Nobody in either party supported universal health care in 1865, it hadn’t been implemented anywhere in the world. The only real political fault line in the North was over race, where you had one party that basically supported legal equality for all in addition to things like the Homestead Act, railroads and internal improvements, and another party that had become a single-issue anti-black party by 1865, and a losing one at that. There are some parallels between the two eras (and comparing the Democrats of the 1860s with the Republicans of today could have been potentially very interesting), but the film unfortunately takes the parallels so far it’s hard to get a sense of the motivations of all the characters. Such as Hal Holbrook’s Preston Blair, whose motivations are practically incoherent in the film because of this trying-to-be-relevant-to-today style of relating the politics of the time. The film seems to want to try to present the politics of the time in a way that the, ahem, low-information voters of today will be able to appreciate, with Lincoln as a sort of Obama figure trying desperately to obtain bipartisan support (a term Stevens uses that almost certainly wasn’t in use in the 19th century) from people who despise him, and who hold all manner of conspiratorial theories about his leadership. More trust in the viewers to pick up on the differences, and a sharper take on the utterly racialized on the politics of the time as compared to today, would have given this aspect of the film an important boost.

Still, I do recommend that high-information voters see the film too, it’s movingly well-acted and incredibly beautiful. Very strong in spite of these issues.

Lev filed this under: , , , ,  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *