So Jasmine and I saw Lincoln a few weeks ago. I was very interested in seeing it; I’m fascinated by that period of American history, and the movie’s been getting great reviews.
The movie warns you with its first scene that it has no patience for how the American Civil War normally gets presented on screen. Union troops, mostly black, are doing battle with the Confederates in a shallow river during a pouring rainstorm. There’s no misty-eyed “Brother Versus Brother” tragedy, no haughty “Lost Cause” revisionism cluttering things up. These guys are going at it with bayonets, rifle butts, knives, fists, boots; this is dirty, brutal, and personal.
We learn how personal in the very next scene, where Lincoln is chatting with a couple of the soldiers (both black) who’d participated in the battle. It was payback, you see. Not too long before, the Confederates had won a battle and declined to take any prisoners, simply executing any blacks who’d either surrendered or lay wounded. The troops who’d lived to fight another day were eager to return the favor.
Yeah. Fuck your Lost Cause. For Lincoln, the war has become what it had always been for America’s black residents: a crusade to put an end to a monstrous injustice.
From there the movie turns to Washington, and the fight to pass the 13th Amendment — the one abolishing slavery in the US. And that’s where it stays, up until a few scenes at the very end. And that’s where problems start showing up.
Jasmine hated it; she was bored stiff. My reaction was somewhere between Jasmine and all the Oscar buzz. I enjoyed myself, but is it overrated? Unfortunately, yes.
Jasmine’s issue (please correct me if I’m wrong, love) was that it was so interminably talky. She compared it to C-SPAN as a costume drama. She’s not wrong; the movie focuses on all the political wrangling and arm twisting behind the passage of the 13th Amendment. I thought this was very interesting; I was not aware it was such a contentious issue even with the South no longer participating in the debate. (Well, not participating in the debate in Congress, anyway. They were arguing their case with rifles and cannons.) I didn’t realize the Emancipation Proclamation was, from a legal standpoint, based on insane troll logic and would almost certainly have imploded under the scrutiny of a peacetime court. And I thought the parallels between the politics of then and now (partisan loathing, favors pushing the boundaries of legality, purists bitching over the compromises being made) were clear enough to be interesting without beating you over the head. If none of that sounds interesting to you, sit this one out; whatever the movie’s other strengths, they won’t be enough to keep you engaged.
But here’s where I thought the movie went wrong: it never decided whether it was about Abraham Lincoln or about the passage of the 13th Amendment.
There’s a scene late in the movie after the amendment passes (spoiler alert: slavery is illegal now) when Lincoln is sitting down with a Confederate peace delegation. Their leader, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, thinks he knows what this “13th Amendment” nonsense is all about. It may have passed Congress, but it still needs to be ratified by the states. And if the South surrenders and is allowed back into the Union soon enough, they’ll have more than enough votes to squash it. It’s a threat, a negotiating ploy: end the war, or your worst fear becomes a reality. And given that the war is going badly for the South, he is indeed ready to discuss surrender if it means preserving slavery.
Except he’s wrong. It’s not a ploy. It’s not a threat. Lincoln doesn’t so much as hint at budging: the 13th Amendment is going to happen. Slavery is about to be abolished in the United States. Also, the South needs to surrender.
The movie misses one hell of an opportunity. A mere two years earlier, Abraham Lincoln would have taken the deal. He’d been adamant, from the beginning, that slavery was a price he was willing to pay if it meant the preservation of the Union. Hell, the Emancipation Proclamation itself contained an olive branch. It specified that if any of the rebelling states would lay down arms before January 1, 1863 — more than three months after it was issued — it would not apply to them.
None of the Confederate states took him up on it, and no wonder; at the time, they were winning. But that’s not the point. The point is, something changed. Was it a function of the North now looking like it was going to win? Or had Lincoln gone from a slavery-tolerating pragmatist to True Believer?
Showing that journey would, I think, have been fascinating, and would have added real impact to a gut-punch moment late in the movie when Lincoln is touring a battlefield and witnessing the thousands of mutilated corpses who might all still be live men if he’d been willing to compromise.
That’s not a journey the movie is interested in taking — and, if you accept that it’s about the 13th Amendment, that is indeed outside the movie’s scope. But if that’s what it’s really about, why do some of the key figures in that fight sometimes seem so cursory? Tommy Lee Jones steals damn near every scene he’s in as fire-breathing abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. I could watch an entire movie of him verbally curb-stomping his pro-slavery colleagues in Congress. Yet his final scene, where we get a look at what’s driving the man, is the most touching and human in the movie. “A gift for you…. Read it to me again, my love.”
He is, in short, a fabulous character. I wish we’d seen more of him. But the movie’s not about him, it’s about Abraham Lincoln … except it’s not really about Abraham Lincoln, it’s about the 13th Amendment … except….
Yeah. It’s a muddled movie.
It is, to me, still a very good movie, and Daniel Day Lewis does indeed completely vanish into the title role. If what I’ve described sounds interesting, by all means check it out.
But if it doesn’t, give it a miss.