A review by Nalini Haynes
Lincoln opens with Abraham Lincoln sitting on a platform under an awning, rain pouring down on the audience at the close of some ceremony or speech. An African-American soldier comes up to talk about equity: the colored corps now has equity of pay ($3 per month) but they still have to pay $3 for their uniforms. It sounds like they’re disabled and working in Australia today!
Some white soldiers walk up and interrupt. I guess white entitlement rules. The soldiers compete for Lincoln’s attention, reciting his Gettysburg address that was delivered about a year earlier.
As someone looking at American culture and history from the outside this was a clunky way to introduce a story half-way through. The soldiers reminded me of countless US movies and TV shows where primary-school children recite the Gettysburg address at an end-of-year concert.
The civil war rages. Lincoln negotiates with his party, the Republicans, to free slaves permanently. He confesses that ‘appropriating’ slaves as booty from war was not quite legal but not quite illegal either. He wants to ensure those slaves aren’t returned to their owners when the peace settlement comes.
A cut-down version of the complexities of motivation, negotiation, bribery, corruption and devious political machinations like stranding a peace delegation, follows.
Conversations between Mary and Abraham Lincoln reveal nothing of their romantic background (that I read in a biography that was old when I borrowed it from a library nearly 30 years ago so its accuracy is not determined) but reveal much of their troubled married life. Apparently Abraham had threatened to have his wife committed because of unrelenting grief after the death of their son. According to the movie, theirs was a very troubled marriage, possibly a forced marriage. One comment led me to believe Mary may have been pregnant before they were married or Abe may have wanted to set her aside shortly after their marriage but she was pregnant.
House committees apparently stretch in an unbroken line from that day to this; I think the committee for “ways and means” (or something similar) is mentioned in both Lincoln and West Wing. As a writer from a country whose system of government is barely over a century old, I found this fascinating.
Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) was an intriguing character whose depiction suffered considerably from the brevity of the form; after the vote is won, he takes the bill home to his partner, an African-American housekeeper, whom he clearly loves. I felt ripped off; I wanted to have known of this relationship sooner, to more fully engage with him as an activist and a person. I wanted to know if his 30 year fight for emancipation was a result of his relationship or if the relationship was possible because he was fighting for equality.
The washed-out colors and unflattering photography were refreshing changes from the usual Hollywood fare. Every actor was well-cast, delivering solid if not inspired performances in spite of the script’s abbreviation detracting from the story. In short: a great start but I want the rest of the story please. To do justice to the story, Lincoln should have been at least the equivalent of a season of Game of Thrones.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars