The movie Lincoln is a strong contender for the Oscar for Best Picture Sunday night, and Daniel Day-Lewis has to be considered the front-runner for Best Actor after portraying the 16th U.S. President as a flesh-and-blood person instead of the usual cinematic saint.
The critics rave. Audiences are awed. Just about everyone loves it.
Why not me?
Without question, Day-Lewis turns in a great performance, but I found the movie bombastic and preachy, a history lesson masquerading as drama.
Consider me a minority of one.
It’s possible that, having read a lot about Lincoln throughout my life, I’m too persnickety. Maybe I just can’t abide anything that runs counter to the mental image I’ve developed of the Great Emancipator.
After all, Lincoln scholars, such as Henry Holzer, who have spent much of their lives in close study of Lincoln — and have a lot more right than I have to be finicky — have endorsed the film.
Not only that, but they’ve turned a blind eye to the many small ways in which director Steven Spielberg has stretched the truth for dramatic effect. Such as putting Mary Todd Lincoln in the gallery of the House of Representatives during the vote on the 13th constitutional amendment to ban slavery. And, in the film’s opening scene, having a couple soldiers recite from memory the Gettysburg Address.
The President’s wife didn’t attend that vote, and few Americans of any sort, much less soldiers on the front lines, had any chance to read Lincoln’s speech at the Gettysburg battlefield, much less memorize it.
I’m with the scholars on this. We’re talking about a feature film, not a documentary. It’s just quibbling to complain about inaccuracies, to carp about how the Lincoln story has been fictionalized a bit to drive home the movie’s central point — that the president was a master politician who recognized the importance of the 13th amendment and who moved heaven and earth to win its passage before the Civil War’s end.
No, I’m not upset about the made-up scenes and dialogue. In fact — and here’s where those scholars are unlikely to agree with me — I wish Spielberg and scriptwriter Tony Kushner had been more courageous in bringing Lincoln to the screen.
They opted to produce a movie on an Important (with a capital “I”) subject. Hollywood feels good about movies that tackle Important subjects, such as the Holocaust and race relations. The Academy Award voters do, too. That’s, in part, why Lincoln has a great chance of taking home the Oscar.
But what if Spielberg and Kushner had decided against creating a cinematic textbook about the official end of slavery in the U.S.? What if they’d chosen, instead, to make a small, intimate movie about Lincoln, the human being?
A quiet story instead
I think that’s the film I wanted to see, especially after watching Day-Lewis bring the Kentucky-born Lincoln to life. As it is, the actor’s wonderful embodiment of the President is hemmed in by all the exposition and histrionics that Spielberg and Kushner seem to feel they need to employ in tackling this Important subject.
Picture, instead, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln inside a quiet story, set perhaps in the middle of the Civil War.
The film might only cover a few days in his life. It could show him dealing a bit with military and political matters, but, much more, it would focus on his interactions with others — with his wife Mary, his sons, his two young, quirky secretaries (John Hay and John Nicolay) among others.
The goal of the movie wouldn’t be to instruct movie-goers about the American past, but to try in some way to figure out the character of the real person who was Lincoln and to portray it. To use art and imagination to make us see, hear and feel Lincoln.
One of us
William Shakespeare did this with Henry V, for instance. Nikos Kazantzakis did it with The Last Temptation of Christ. Each attempted to look into the heart and soul of his subject, to interpret that subject. For Shakespeare, Henry was power-hungry, yet also dedicated and heroic. Kazantzakis envisioned Jesus as someone who was as prey to doubt, desire and temptation as the rest of us.
In these works, Henry and Jesus are put forward as human beings whose lives and personalities tell us something about human nature and the human condition.
I wish I could have gone to Lincoln and experienced that man as a human being rather than a player in a national drama.
In other words, as one of us.
Patrick T. Reardon