Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lincoln A Good But Not Great Movie

I’m no movie expert. You’d have a difficult time finding anyone who sees fewer movies than I do. Perhaps it is because I lack cinematic sophistication that I don’t see what others see in the recently released Lincoln. Yes Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is brilliant casting. Yes he does a great job of humanizing the stiff hero of the history books. The period costumes and sets are stunningly detailed and make us feel quite credibly transported to 1865 Washington. But what I expected to be a gritty, and not-always- flattering depiction of Abraham Lincoln comes across as surprisingly idealized. There are backroom deals and outright bribing of House representatives but if you believe that Lincoln approved them, it's because you assumed so because it was not in the script. In the movie, those close to him expressed their official objection to offering anything more than patronage jobs for votes.

The African-Americans in the film were uniformly superficial and compliant. They discuss slavery’s implications dispassionately with the calm calculation of Harvard-educated lawyers in a civil litigation proceeding. In one scene where black Civil War soldiers complain directly to Lincoln about the lack of rights afforded blacks in the military, I would have expected anger and perhaps insubordination before being hauled away. Instead, they plead their case politely and calmly to Lincoln who seemed oddly detached. The scene turned mildly embarrassing as they sought to impress Lincoln with a perfect recitation of the Gettysburg address.  

While the bigger stars get all of the attention, the best performance was David Strathairn as William Seward. He was convincing when he seethed with anger and humiliation that Lincoln had responded favorably to negotiation overtures with  Jefferson Davis without consulting his Secretary of State. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tommy Lee Jones as the curmudgeonly, somewhat unprincipled yet heroic Thaddeus Stevens seemed excessive and forced.

It is a good but not great movie. I expected that like Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln would make raw that which has previously been depicted too tidy and sanitized. In that, it fell short of my admittedly high expectations.