Lincoln doesn't Secede

We apologize for the titular pun, but the reality is that Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln has provided us with the second massive disappointment in a week or so. The other one was Skyfall. We weren't sure what we were expecting with Lincoln, but we certainly didn't get it. Spielberg managed to take the most fascinating character in American history during the most tumultuous period in our history and actually make a dull and inaccurate movie. How could this have happened?

The real... Abraham Lincoln
Here's our explanation as to what went wrong with this movie:

  1. Spielberg choose to focus on a tiny sliver of Civil War history (and an even smaller part of Lincoln's life) - the passage of the 13th amended to the constitution (e.g. the permanent abolition of slavery).
  2. The story of the passage of that amendment drifted from being a morality epic into a buffonish process study into the workings of the Congress of 1865. 
  3. The portrayal of Lincoln (while done very well by Daniel Day Lewis) is a continuation of slew of Lincoln myths - when taken together they greatly diminish the true historical character of Lincoln. Worse than that though, the film was sprinkled with awkward and often inappropriate humor, dedicating serious amounts of time to James Spader and his pals as wacky lobbyists intent on buying votes through patronage jobs. 
  4. There is almost no action in the film - this is the Civil War and no action, a 4 year period wherein we fought more than in every other war in history combined.
  5. The big issues were "wonkified" - at times it seemed as though we were watching the 1865 version of "Meet the Press." (BTW - this is how you take great and important issues and make them seem boring).

Daniel Day Lewis will get an Oscar nod for this role, but the script was lame

We were referring to the fact that this film perpetuated a number of Lincoln myths; here are the ones we're referring to:

  • That Lincoln was a relatively comic figure with all his homilies, jokes and such. Nothing was further from the truth - Lincoln was perhaps the most astute politician in this nation's history. While he did often use anecdotes to make his point, he wasn't all anecdotes - as depicted in this and many other films. If you want to know what Lincoln really sounded like, how he actually made his cases and crafted his rhetoric, there's ample examples to go by. Here's an example that is entirely consistent with Lincoln's true style of communication:
It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our national Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens, have, in succession, administered the executive branch of the government. They have conducted it through many perils; and, generally, with great success. Yet, with all this scope for [of] precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years, under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.
I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever -- it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself. (first inaugural address - 1861)
  • That Lincoln sounded like Mark Twain (e.g. whiny, squeaky). Lincoln was perhaps the most successful debater and best public speaker in our history -he did not speak with a crackly voice
  • That Lincoln expressed himself in simple terms more often than not. This is absolutely not true. No president in this nation's history was more eloquent
  • That Lincoln was a broken man before he was assassinated, burdened by remorse over the war and the burden of being married to Mary Todd. The story-line of this movie even seems to contradict itself on this point as we see Lincoln the politician fighting to win a crucial victory while looking beaten at the same time. The fact that Lincoln was out celebrating at a theater when he was shot ought to indicate that maybe he wasn't as bad off as everyone seems to have wanted him to be. He was in fact squarely focused on the remainder of his second term and reconstruction of the nation.
We don't need to humanize Lincoln in cinema through continued reliance on these misunderstandings. Lincoln's actions and words did more than enough to humanize him for us and the ages. The real story that begs to be told about Lincoln is how this man rose to greatness; how he stood by his principles both in terms of saving the union and ending slavery and almost single-handedly held the United States through its most severe test together through sheer force of will. This movie only gives us fleeting glimpses of that and despite several remarkable performances (by Lewis and Sally Field in particular) falls flat in helping to know the real Lincoln or better understand an America that was perfectly willing to destroy itself in a bloodbath of unimaginable proportions.   

The Civil War was no joking matter

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