movie: Lincoln (2012)

In honor of my mother’s birthday recently, Husband and I accompanied my parents to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, backed up by a further star-studded cast. It was truly impressive, as expected.

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln (Photo: David James, DreamWorks II/Twentieth Century Fox)

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln (photo credit)

There is no shortage out there of positive reviews of this movie, many of which say it better than I can and know the historical details better than I do, so I shall try to keep this brief. As promised, Daniel Day Lewis IS Lincoln. The visual impact of Lewis’s Lincoln, and of the period costume and cinematic effect (use of light and shadow, especially) is very good – but again, this is Spielberg, so no great surprises. The emotional impact is great, too. The scene where the 13th amendment is voted in, and the reactions to that vote, I found very powerful. It was an enjoyable experience.

I felt somewhat, and Pops expressed a similar feeling, that this movie’s view of history was a little “feel-good.” My vague recollection of American history yields a more cynical view, in which the Civil War was not so much about the human rights of black people as it was about states’ rights vs. federalism, economics, and yes, slavery, but more as an issue of the above (economy, industry) than as a civil rights issue. Specifically, I believe I recall reading the Lincoln-Douglas debates for a freshman political science course and noting that Lincoln was not quite the egalitarian the movie represents – although, to be fair, the movie does have him balk at black suffrage. At any rate, it felt like this Lincoln encourages us, as Americans, to be proud of our very principled, virtuous past, to a degree perhaps a tad simplified and glorified. That said, it DID feel good. So your feelings about this question depend on what you want from the film – historical accuracy, or fuzzy feelings.

This cast was outstanding. Aside from the big names D.D. Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones (and Spielberg), you will recognize a great many faces further, and everyone did an outstanding job. (Between us, my group of 4 recognized actors from Breaking Away, Bad News Bears, ER, and Mr. Deeds, and that was fun.) I think I enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens the best. Now, the acting and the screenwriting tended towards the theatrical or dramatic rather than the realistic; many, perhaps the majority of the scenes involve grand, sweeping, profound statements, delivered with lifted chin. But this, too, is not necessarily a criticism. It’s not realism, but theatre – finely produced theatre.

As you know, I am always curious about historical accuracy in works of historical fiction or dramatizations. In this case, we all wondered about Stevens’s relationship with his housekeeper: in the movie, they are lovers. I poked around the internet enough to see that historians have speculated but cannot confirm such a theory; and it was Pops that sent along this excellent link, in which Slate discusses historical accuracy throughout the film. Don’t hesitate to click on some of the links within it, too: I did and found it all fascinating.

I will leave you here with the idea that this is a magnificent, entertaining, thought-provoking, if slightly rosy portrayal of our 16th president, presented by an outstanding cast.

Rating: 7 flashing eyes.

5 Responses

  1. I want to see this movie, but have some of your concerns. The Civil War was not about slavery. I can’t think of many wars that were about civil rights. Even the revolutionary war was about, you guessed it money. I know this sounds cynical, but come on–money makes the world go round. Back to the Civil War (one of my favorite time periods) the economic disparity between the North and the South was drastic. The North had factories and banking. The South was agricultural. This is one of the reasons States Rights played such a big role in this time period. The South wanted to assert its dominance in a world when their power was waning.

    Still want to see the movie 🙂 I like feel good movies–and I’ll do my best not to shout in the theater, “This isn’t true!”

    • That’s a good one-paragraph distillation of what I THOUGHT it was about. (And I’m no Civil War buff; so happy to have you speak to it.) So, a little idealistic in the movie. But if you go in well-informed and willing to allow it 🙂 you could still enjoy a well-done movie.

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