Blallywood Film Review: Lincoln

by on November 21, 2012

Lincoln, Spielberg’s latest venture, explores the last year of Lincoln’s presidency, the year 1865.  The year in which he was consumed with the task of Commander-in-Chief of the Civil War and developing and ratifying the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, an amendment that would abolish slavery and change the trajectory of four million enslaved Africans living in the American South.

Leading players include Tommy Lee Jones as a memorable and tormented Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest son, Sally Field as a headstrong and emotional Mary Todd Lincoln, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Honest Abe himself.  What’s incredible about this film is that it humanizes a giant.  In our happy contemporary space and time we hold figures from the past on lofty pedestals, and deservedly so. We will never know what these courageous men were really like. Were they kind? Did they have senses of humor?  These are the enormous gaps that “bio-pics” of this kind need to fill in order to resonate with the audience, otherwise it feels like an animated history book, and snores will fill the theater. Lincoln is superbly successful.  Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance alone is enough to carry the entire movie.  His portrayal of Lincoln is fluid, consistent, revelatory, and even scary at times.  It is a masterful performance that goes beyond imitation.  The film is completely immersive and spellbinding. The timely release with the recent reelection of President Obama is beautifully ironic as well.  Day-Lewis is firmly supported by Sally Field and the other players and watching the political process unfold in the House of Representatives scenes will leave you breathless.  It has all the makings of a meaningful and definitive biographical film.

However, Lincoln is not without problems.  For starters, this film completely neglects to explore conditions in the south during slavery. Spielberg seems to shy away from giving the American south any attention at all.  The brutality of American slavery and the conditions on slave plantations is completely ignored.  Moreover, with the exception of two black Union soldiers at the opening of the film, Mary Todd Lincoln’s mistress, and the occasional black chauffer, butler, or maid at the White House, there are very few black faces in general.  As a result, this film completely downplays any role black people played in working for abolition.  During the time, there was a strong conglomeration of free black professionals living DC, all doing their own work (within their limits) to further the abolitionist cause.  The significance of black faces in a film about slavery is huge, and this oversight is painful.  The life experience of a black slave or black freemen (the very people that will be affected by the legislation being argued over) take a back seat to scenes that allow for full political debate within the House of Representatives or scenes that offer screen time to Lincoln’s eldest son who’s is aching to join his peers in the military.

However, let me continue by saying that upon heavy thought, the lack of black faces makes sense.  Difficult for me to admit to myself but let me explain.  This is a film about Lincoln, not necessarily about slavery.  In a film called Lincoln, point of view is a necessity for impact. Though Lincoln firmly believed that enslaved blacks were equal to whites and emancipation was morally imperative to the future of the nation, the political process for ratifying the 13th amendment wasn’t really about slavery as much as it was about executive power, ending a brutal war, and unity within the United States.  The moral question, though important, was secondary. This doesn’t excuse the lack of black faces, though for cinematic sake, not having a sense of the black experience at that time does add a dramatic layer of mystery to the other side of the equation- what the heck are black people thinking and what will happen to them once they are free?

This film, though somewhat flawed, is a DO NOT MISS.  You will, not only, be entertained, but it will have you thinking long and hard about the political process in our country, and it will inspire you to brush up on your American history.  A-.





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