Oscar winning performance in a dreadfully B-O-R-I-N-G Movie. Daniel-Day is superb. Warm, human, weak, but a great and noble “man of the ages”. He brings Lincoln to life. The writing for his character and Tommy Lee Jones’s Stevens was brilliant. The rest of it was BORING political procedural. Did I say Boring already?
OMG, I wanted to leave after the first 15 minutes. But I stayed, so you don’t have to. Don’t worry, you’re not a racist if you don’t see this movie. You’re just a moviegoer that wants a good story.
The entire dramatic question of the story is “Will Lincoln get the votes he needs to secure the 13th Amendment?” The moral dilemma was that Lincoln was told he could have peace or the Amendment, but he could not have both. But he sought for both on moral conviction. And the movie is taken up with the completely uninteresting storyline — attempting to be interesting by adding the brilliant cynicism of James Spader and cohorts as the first lobbyists — of trying to convince each and every man to vote for the Amendment.
Look, of course, this is a truly important and truly noble part of history that we all need to know about. And I’m sure it works well in the original historical political book. BUT A MOVIE IS NOT THE PLACE TO TRY TO EDUCATE US LIKE THIS. We want humanity, emotion, human drama, and this movie only delivers snatches of that humanity buried under boring political procedures. Let me say, that I actually LOVE political intrigue in movies. Braveheart, Gladiator, Rob Roy, and others only work as epics because of the court intrique and machinations. Game of Thrones and The Borgias are entirely about such things, and they all work just fine. But only because they are engorged with the human drama of the main players. The political intrigue embodies the personal conflicts AND is NOT focused on the details of the political procedures. In contrast, this movie is an endless litany of unknown men and their unknown faces being “persuaded” to vote, interspersed with Lincoln and his men talking about those unknown men and all their unknown details, interspersed with some very cool movie moments of Lincoln telling stories, ending with a complete roll call of E-V-E-R-Y S-I-N-G-L-E V-O-T-E in the House. Look, I know Spielberg thinks it is historically important to “call out” those who voted for and against, but that means he has capitulated to using movies as a political tool for indoctrination (regardless of how worthy the cause is). It’s a movie, for goodness’ sake, not an original forensic document. We don’t want to hear and see each and every vote, we want to know “what happens next.” Oh, look at me, trying to lecture the great Steven Spielberg. I’ll stop now.
But my point is that Spielberg tried to make this very much like an updated Frank Capra movie. Of course, he’s done so in its beautiful look and feel, but not in soul. It is not enough to have a couple brilliant characters, you must have a brilliant storyline, and sadly, Lincoln does not. He should learn how to do it right from his own Amistad. That movie brought it. This movies blows it.
To be fair there were several VERY human and powerful moments that moved me to a tear, and that much I’ll gladly admit. A very unique scene where Lincoln’s son forgoes the cliché scene of visiting the war wounded to see their hacked up bodies, but instead follows a cart to find the pile of severed limbs being buried. Whoah. Lincoln taking time to talk to black soldiers and to common men to get their advice. Awesome. One scene of Lincoln struggling with his wife Mary over her manic troubles was truly sympathetic yet honest, and captured that suffering in both their lives. And an amazing last scene of the movie when Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens brings home the actual bill passed by the House. It was a beautiful surprise revelation that made the movie. But of course, Jones owned the movie, even more than Lewis, but that is because he had the strongest character arc that embodied the theme and meaning of the movie: You must subjugate your personal convictions to negotiation if you are to achieve the public good in a democracy. And this is NOT moral compromise or lack of character, but rather our responsibility as humans in a divided world of imperfection. Lincoln had already accepted this before the movie began (which is why he is not as interesting a protagonist), but Tommy Lee, as the chief “extremist Pro-Lifer” – whoops, I mean Abolitionist, — was the one whose journey to finally give up his “radical” absolutist stance in order to actually bring about good in the world of the abolition of slavery. The “all or nothing” mentality is actually irresponsible and of low moral character in a democracy.
This is why the movie really should have been titled, “The 13th Amendment” and a story about the journey of Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens’ goal to abolish slavery, only to realize his own human weaknesses and his need to bend to his fellow humans in order to bring change and peace.
I have to say I was impressed by the fact that Spielberg, a well-known leftist in Hollywood, actually told a story where he openly revealed the Democrats as the bad guys. And he didn’t do the usual of turning it around and making the Republicans the bad guys. He showed that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery and racism, and the Republican Party was the party created to stop slavery. Of course, there were nuances that he dealt with as well which also made it more even handed (Not all Republicans were radical abolitionists, and some Democrats did vote for the Amendment, they were needed to win after all).
But regardless, I think this movie has enough in it for both sides to see their own biases affirmed, which actually makes it pretty fairly done. No doubt, the Republicans will see in it the affirmation of their pro-life struggle, and the Democrats as the party of slavery and racism. They will point to this dark underbelly as reflective of what has been ignored in education and the media, along with the Democratic Party’s history as the origin and membership of the KKK, and the main force behind Jim Crow laws and against the early Civil Rights movement (See here). And also no doubt, the Democrats will see it as an affirmation of their gay marriage laws struggle as well as a justification for Obama’s Executive Decisions to avoid accountability to the legislative branch (because of perceived righteousness of cause), as well as his antipathy to State’s rights.
But I think all this simply means that the movie Lincoln pretty accurately captured the universal political struggles that never change through history and keep repeating themselves in the endless struggle of a divided population.
But did it have to be so BORING?