*. Pretty much everything I didn’t like about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is contained in the opening scene. A pair of Black soldiers accost President Lincoln and start hectoring him about how they’re not getting paid as much as their white brothers-in-arms. Then a pair of white soldiers show up and recite the Gettysburg Address. They flub the last part, but after they leave the Black soldiers finish it off.
*. This got my back up for several reasons. In the first place it was beyond belief that regular grunts would be complaining about pay to the president, their commander-in-chief, like this. That’s just not how it works in the army. Then there’s the way they all know the Gettysburg Address, a speech that notoriously bombed when it was made. As the Lincoln historian Harold Holzer remarked, “it is almost inconceivable that any uniformed soldier of the day (or civilians, for that matter) would have memorized a speech that, however ingrained in modern memory, did not achieve any semblance of a national reputation until the 20th century.”
*. At which point you might say it’s just a movie. Obviously this is one of those scenes they throw in to humanize history while introducing what will be major themes. But it’s done in such a hokey, transparent way it grates.
*. Later we’ll have the film’s climax, the Congressional vote on adoption of the 13th Amendment, made more dramatic by having it done as a roll call when it apparently was a paper ballot. This allows for lots of long pauses showing battles of conscience followed by wild cheering at the end. It’s very silly in an unhistorical and obvious fashion, but even with the liberties it takes it falls flat. I mean, where’s the suspense? They’ve shown that everyone following the vote is keeping a running tally, so they all know what the result is before it’s announced.
*. So history is being adapted to make it more filmable. No surprise there. “Now he belongs to the ages,” we are told, as Lincoln expires. And to Hollywood. At the end we see Lincoln riding through a massive battlefield without any explanation of where this would be. At this point in the war there were no more massive battles. But I guess this particular battlefield is being made to stand in for the final butcher’s bill of the entire Civil War so it’s a scene that has a dramatic purpose even if no historical referent exists.
*. None of these liberties taken bugged me very much, as liberties. Historians were generally on board with this movie. It wasn’t perfect, but was considered to be close enough. As I say, what needled me more was how hokey it feels. Would it have been less effective a movie if it had been more realistic? I think they might have at least tried a little harder in this regard.
*. For example, Daniel Day-Lewis got a lot of praise for his performance and I think that praise was well deserved. But I think a lot of it was for presenting a Lincoln very much in line with what we know about the man — that is, a “real” Lincoln — right down to his surprisingly high-pitched, almost strangulated voice.
*. Though I think they might have gone a bit overboard with the Man of Sorrows stuff. I wondered if it was possible for a man to walk any slower than he does leaving the telegraph office, and while watching that scene kept imagining Spielberg yelling direction off camera: “Slower, Daniel! Sloooooooower!” But Lincoln was on his way to being marbleized and carved into a mountainside. Is Day-Lewis any more fluid than Raymond Massey? A close call. It’s hard to soften a historical figure whose every utterance not only feels but in some cases actually was engraved in stone.
*. In the accompanying “making of” featurette included with the DVD Spielberg talks about his first encounter with Lincoln being a trip to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington as a boy. It’s hard not to see this as leading to the reverent treatment of the man in this movie. Personally, I would have liked something a little riskier and even friskier. Maybe an appearance by Frederick Douglass. Where did he go?
*. This is certainly a well turned-out production in every respect but it plays dead to me as costume drama. Even the erratic Mary Todd Lincoln (America’s mom Sally Field) struck me as whitewashed (and I don’t mean that in a racial sense).
*. There were chances here for fireworks, but it feels like a damp squib. Many of the compositions, for example, are arranged as tableaux. The lighting is funereal. The dialogue (by Tony Kushner) is lifeless and unnatural. It’s always a struggle bringing sacred history like this to the screen, and it might be an even fiercer struggle today, but all I can acknowledge here is the effort and not the results.