5/18/13 (Sat), Tokyo
I didn’t have high expectations for this film given the political sensibilities surrounding blacks and slavery along with Spielberg’s sappy PC tendencies. Still, while those fears were realized within about three minutes of the opening, the film as a whole proved enlightening and entertaining at the same time.
The story turned out to be less about the war itself (despite the inevitable, wholly unnecessary Spielbergian battle scene at the opening) than about Lincoln’s political finagling to ensure that slavery is banned irrevocably before the South rejoins the union. Lincoln’s famous personal ambivalence towards blacks is, quite properly, not dealt with here. The point is that as abolition had become the symbol of the war, he felt that the nation could not be seen to backtrack on this point when the war was won. He insisted that the South, on the verge of defeat as the film opens, be reincorporated instantly within the union just as before on even terms with the Northern states, but was well aware that this would give them power to block or change vital legislation on the slavery issue. Thus, he believed the matter needed to be dealt with by an explicit amendment to the Constitution itself, and that needed to happen before the South’s imminent return – meaning that he had to overcome significant resistance among Northern congressmen themselves and have everything in place before the North sealed its victory.
That time element gave the film its dramatic thrust. Lincoln had to do plenty of cajoling, arm-twisting, threatening and general shrewd politicking to accomplish his goal as the clock ticked away. Screenwriter Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame, brought this off exceptionally well with sharp dialogue and a slew of interesting characters with varying motives and personality traits.
The only exception to that was the treatment of the black characters. The first scene sees Lincoln visiting a battlefield and talking with soldiers. While a white soldier gushes and asks just how tall the president really is, an eloquent black soldier quotes the Emancipation Proclamation word for word and asks the president directly to live up to those ideals. Aside from the silly contrast with the dumb white guy, it was an idealized portrait that didn’t feel right given the conditions that blacks presumably lived under in the 1860s, even in the North. I got the same feeling with Mrs. Lincoln’s maid, who seemed way too good to be true – all that was missing was the halo. Maybe the filmmakers felt it wasn’t worth the risk to create believable people having character flaws or, for that matter, any interesting traits at all. Lincoln wants to have its cake (blacks were oppressed and denied opportunity) and eat it too (blacks are highly educated and articulate). In one excellent sequence, Tommy Lee Jones as a Republican congressman argues adeptly that even obnoxious slobs like the Democrats deserve the same freedom and rights as anyone else. That goes against what we see of the black characters, who come in only one shade, treacly good. In other words, the film treats them like a class rather than as individual human beings. I wouldn’t consider that progress. As with much of Spielberg, it’s all light and no shadow.
Still, the film was otherwise a convincing portrayal of events, juggling many characters and voices with great skill. It was a very talky film, as could be expected from the ever-verbose Kushner, but managed to stay interesting and on focus. It did a good job in taking Lincoln off his marble pedestal and showing us the lawyer and politician doing what it takes to cap the deal. It’s not a side of history that I was familiar with and made me eager to read the source book.
The casting was superb, with Jones especially nearly stealing the movie from a fantastic Daniel Day Lewis. Japanese friends have generally been unimpressed, and maybe some background knowledge is helpful or even necessary to enjoy this. (Spielberg actually appeared in a brief prologue made specifically for Japanese audiences, but I guess that wasn’t enough.) Other than Lincoln’s ludicrous opening appearance on the battlefield, the portrayal of Mrs Lincoln (though well acted by Sally Fields) and the velvet-glove treatment of blacks, I thought it definitely passed the test as entertainment. I’d love to see a stage version.