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I inevitably dread reviewing historical or biopic films, because in addition to evaluating whether or not the movie is well made and discerning the story’s key messages, I’m compelled to discuss the film’s historical spin.
And make no mistake: It’s impossible to make a movie about a historical figure – especially one as controversial as Abraham Lincoln – without spinning the tale.
It’s not even necessarily the fault of the filmmaker. Any person’s life has so many nuances, so many sides to the story, that elements and events must be left out and perspectives glossed over, or the film would stretch two years instead of two hours.
So here’s a less-than-surprising news flash: “Lincoln” presents a less-than-complete picture of the famous president.
Let’s start with what the film does well.
First of all, the film wisely limits its treatment of Lincoln to one month in time, the congressional lame duck session after the 1864 election during which the 13th Amendment was passed.
During that month, the film strips off the candy-coated façade of Lincoln from the junior high textbooks and reveals a far more accurate picture of a shrewd and pragmatic politician – which Lincoln was, far more than an idealist championing abolition or the sanctity of the union – working, conniving and cajoling a boisterous, cantankerous Congress into passing the 13th Amendment. This approach, which is the heart of the book from which this film is adapted (“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”), gives the political junkie a thrill ride of insider political twists and shenanigans from an era when lawmakers weren’t afraid to call one another rotten dirty snakes – and worse – on the floor of the House, while spinning a lovely and eloquent backstabbing at a cocktail party later that evening.
The acting in the film is also phenomenal – from Daniel Day-Lewis’ complete immersion into the mannerisms of the lead character, to Sally Field’s completely believable portrayal of his practically bipolar wife, to Tommy Lee Jones in highest form as the powerful, silver tongued firebrand Thaddeus Stevens, which really ices this cake masterfully.
Giving these actors a brilliantly written script – at least through most of the picture – is a recipe for fantastic filmmaking.
But now, let’s look at what isn’t done so well in “Lincoln.”
Unfortunately, despite giving a more realistic picture of Lincoln than any I think I’ve ever seen, the film still went way too far in making the 16th president seem practically divine.
For starters, the film’s opening and closing sequences are so sappy and adulatory that it diminishes the far grittier and more realistic picture seen in the middle of the movie.
This is made only worse by the silly line spoken to him about his presidential popularity: “No one’s ever been loved so much by the people.”
Yet this film takes place right after Lincoln’s re-election, which he won by a 10-point margin … after you discount the votes from half the country (thanks to secession). Considering roughly 70 percent of the country hated his guts and half the country up and left the union because of his first election, I’m just not feeling the “love” for Lincoln.
The film also had the courage (which no textbook I’ve ever seen dares) to mention how Lincoln used his war powers in blatantly unconstitutional means, such as imprisoning members of the press who were critical of him and suspending the right to habeas corpus – yet when it levels this criticism, the words are spoken in the raving rant of the film’s biggest villain, as though these charges were just some sort of political slander. But the charges are neither slander nor lunacy; Lincoln committed shocking deeds of presidential overreach that would have made Patrick Henry roll over in his grave. These realities just don’t come through in this film’s glowing portrayal of the president.
Furthermore, the film quickly dismisses many of Lincoln’s less-than-abolitionist ways – such as his previous, public support for a different 13th Amendment that would have banned the federal government for interfering with states that wanted to maintain slavery – quipping that these statements were only what he “had” to say in the political climate at the time.
It’s true that much of Lincoln’s equivocation on slavery can be traced to his fundamental pragmatism – which the film does really emphasize – but it’s clearly a gloss-over moment in a movie that is rushing to portray Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”
The film’s constant focus on slavery also seems to reinforce the popular misconception that the War Between the States was “all about slavery,” but I’ll give it a bit of a pass on that one, since the movie is trying to focus just on the 13th Amendment.
From a film quality perspective, the movie has some flaws as well, particularly in the corny – nay, outright cheesy – scene in which Lincoln first appears on screen. It’s bad. Laughably bad.
The conclusion of the film is also a bit clumsy too, and when you consider the middle drags on a bit at too deliberate a pace, for all its shining moments – and there really are some gems – “Lincoln” just isn’t as enjoyable as it could have been.
But my biggest criticism of “Lincoln” is its primary moral message.
This isn’t a film about a man making sacrifices to do what’s right. It isn’t about overcoming adversity or redeeming a broken country. This is about politics. And doing whatever it takes to win the day. Lie, cheat, bribe – the end justifies the means.
The protagonist, Lincoln, preaches and models the notion that if your cause is just, just about anything can be done to see it through. Even the film’s most idealistic man of virtue, Thaddeus Stevens, is eventually convinced by Lincoln that if lying and two-facing is what it takes to accomplish your goals, then you do it. Lincoln actually presents Stevens with a convincing argument that a man’s moral compass must be set aside to accomplish his moral goals. And by the film’s end, the audience celebrates Lincoln and Stevens compromising their integrity, because, hey – they got the 13th Amendment passed.
In a film that is clearly attempting to put Lincoln up on a pedestal, I find that pedestal to be on awfully shaky footing.
“Lincoln,” rated PG-13, contains roughly 35 profanities and obscenities, including a few instances that seem a little too strong and too modern for the time period.
The film has almost no sexuality, with a kiss, a couple seen (clothed) in bed together, a reference to prostitution and Mary Todd Lincoln shown partially undressing (not in a sensual way).
The film includes a brutal battle scene, some minor gun violence, a few stories about violence, several shots of corpses upon the battlefield and a startling sequence where blood-dripping, amputated limbs are dumped into a common grave.
The film is loaded with religious references, common to the time period, arguments about God, references to the Greek pantheon of gods and prayer. Lincoln has a bizarre dream that he asks his wife to interpret as his “soothsayer” (said in jest), and young Tad raves about a new book he’s reading about evolution, but the film has no occult or significant religious themes.