Lincoln November 15, 2012

A Review of Lincoln, Directed by Steven Spielberg


There is a scene near the end of Steven Spielberg’s luminescent new film Lincoln in which the President paces the White House alone waiting for news of the House of Representatives’ vote on the 13 Amendment, which will abolish slavery once and for all.  It is the moment that will solidify his legacy and ensure the Civil War was fought for something worthwhile.  Bells begin ringing across the city in celebration, heralding the news.  Lincoln opens the window to hear the music.  His son runs into the room and jumps into his arms. Light pours in from the window on the two of them.  Father and son celebrate the moment together, bathed in music and light.

Spielberg has given us many, many moments of sentiment and poetry on screen over the decades of his long and celebrated career.  This ranks among my very favorites.  You need to see this movie.

There is clique of film snobs who make a hobby out of hating Spielberg’s work.  They complain that his movies are sentimental and simplistic, pander to the lowest common denominator, and cheapen cinema by going for spectacle over substance.  They blame him for pioneering product placement (I challenge you to think of E.T. (1982) without thinking of Reese’s Pieces) and ushering in the blockbuster era (e.g., Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)).

The problem with such critics is that they never had fun as children and think no one else should be allowed to either.  Perhaps they studied too much theory in college, or aspired to be the next Ingmar Bergman and felt thwarted when no one wanted to pay to see their student film.  Movies are art, but they are also entertainment.  Every great work of art was done by an artist who wanted to get paid for it. Spielberg, whose films have collectively grossed $9 billion at the global box office, is simply one of the best-selling artists in world history.

And yes, he is an artist.  Listen to the haters and you’d think Spielberg was Jerry Bruckheimer’s evil twin.  In reality, Spielberg was doing “serious” films as early as The Color Purple in 1985, long before Schindler’s List (1993) or Munich (2005).  And even when Spielberg does popcorn flicks, he does them with quality and style. Spielberg’s movies have been nominated for a whopping 112 Oscars, including 7 for Best Picture and 6 for Best Director.  Incredibly, five of his films—Jaws, Raiders, and E.T., along with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998)—are on AFI’s list of the greatest films of all time.

Lincoln takes its place among these masterpieces.  The film is part political drama, part biopic, part period-piece.  Spielberg’s previous forays into history didn’t suggest greatness.  Amistad (1997) and War Horse (2011) were perfectly competent and enjoyable films, but the former lacked passion and the latter unity.  I feared Lincoln would be lifeless, inaccurate, or a jumble of well-acted but disconnected scenes.  Lincoln is, instead, gripping, intense, heartbreaking, funny—and, yes, warm and inspiring, as such movies must be.

The plot follows the political machinations surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment in the opening months of 1865.  This part of the movie is surprisingly spry and witty, thanks in large part of Tommy Lee Jones’ scene-stealing turn as Representative Thaddeus Stevens and—perhaps—the livelier and smarter nature of politics in the 19th Century compared to our own time.  I wish politicians knew how to insult one another the way Jones does here.

The drama centers on Lincoln the man, husband, and father.  This is the part of the film that is deeply moving.  Lincoln’s young son Tad is present in most scenes with Lincoln, and the relationship between the two is affectionate, kind, and playful.  The relationship is thrown into sharp relief when Tad bursts into the office while Lincoln is having a serious meeting with his Secretaries of War and State.  Lincoln’s easy simultaneous handling of both relationships—warm and personal towards his son, businesslike with his staff—shows a man of great emotional depth and sensitivity.  Such maturity was gained through trial:  Lincoln lost two other sons, William and Edward, in their youth; Lincoln’s marriage was troubled, as was his relationship with his older son, Robert, who wants to join the army to escape his father’s shadow.

Lincoln is often described as melancholy, wise, charming, funny, solitary, as a great story-teller, a canny politician, a methodical lawyer, and a lot of other things.  So much mythology and monumentality have grown up around Lincoln that it is hard to envision him as an actual human.  The screenplay and, more so, Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Lincoln clear away the clutter and bring the disparate strands of his character together in a believable, living portrait.  If Day-Lewis doesn’t win an Oscar for his portrayal of the Great Emancipator, the Academy should vote itself out of existence.

Lincoln believed he needed the 13th Amendment to solidify the war’s purpose.  Critics in Congress and in his own cabinet believed the Amendment was unnecessary and would make peace with the Confederacy harder to achieve.  Lincoln didn’t disagree—but he understood that there is something more important than peace—and that is justice.  Lincoln knew that wars must have a moral purpose, the achievement of which justifies the use of lethal violence.  Without moral purpose, war is simply murder.  The 13th Amendment made permanent and irrevocable the abolition of slavery, and the Confederate states could come back into the Union having accepted the end of slavery, or not at all.  Passing the 13th Amendment gave the war its moral purpose, made the war worthwhile, and justified the sacrifice of the previous four years.  It may have delayed the peace by a few months, but it made the peace more durable and just.  That is the difference between merely ending a war, and winning it.

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