Lincoln Movie Review: Civil War Lite

While documentaries may elicit complaints of being akin to eating your vegetables with their history lesson format, Hollywood movies flirting with recorded history tend to be the opposite – as nutritious-challenged desserts with no robust main course in sight. But what the two film categories do share more often than not, is what Welsh writer Dylan Thomas referred to in ‘A Child’s Christmas In Wales’ as detail-drenched books ‘that told me everything about the wasp, except why.’

And such an unfortunate description could not be more true about Steven Spielberg’s hyper-reverential biopic, Lincoln. Its simplistic when not seemingly calculated take on that period as Civil War Lite aside, the film as in its focus on the past, harkens back to a time in American movies when wooden characters roamed the screens with impossibly rarefied, one-dimensional personalities.

Teaser poster.

But hey, we’ve come a long way since then, baby. Where a far more sophisticated, jaded US audience entering theaters with a precooked tabloid sensationalism mindset and hip to the ways of politicians, anticipates at least a little venture into the human dark side, no matter how deified.

At once curiously bloated, but chronologically constricted and condensed, ‘Lincoln’ extracts from the US Civil War years the period leading up to its culmination. And with quite a questionable reason for presenting merely a slice of that history, but later about that. And focusing instead on a concurrent battle back then indoors, where the president and his congressional allies fought to push through the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery. A key factor in effect facilitating the end of the war, by toppling the racial economic backbone of the Southern slavocracy – which was also competitively threatening the evolving ascendancy of the industrial North.

The film is bookended with horrifically captured scenes of battlefield deaths – the greatest loss of American lives in US history with over a million casualties – when thirty percent of the Southern male population perished along with ten percent in the North. And a forgotten moment in history to Spielberg’s credit, of valiant slaves who joined the Union army, and at the same time voicing their dismay over their second class treatment in the military despite their sacrifices.

But these inclusions are so marginal as to be rendered nearly meaningless, in comparison to the over two hour running time overstuffed main attraction. Which is in large part the endless bickering and backroom deals to push the Emancipation Proclamation through.

Now for those out there who when not flocking to the theaters, are C-Span junkies thrilled by the gavel to gavel legislative sessions on television, you’ll be just fine. But for everyone else, take heed and take along a score card to wind your way through the chaotic procession of opinionated talking heads.

Which oddly enough, no matter how crowded with procedural details, explains little about what is actually going down in the past at that moment. And leaving huge plot holes, historically speaking, that are so blatant as to amount to lying by omission. Because regrettably yes, omission is lying too.

And though playing historian to fill in such gaps should be an unnecessary task for film critics, there are times when to not do so, would feel like a serious dereliction of duty. So here goes.

Lincoln – the man and in no way the movie – was initially a defender of slavery. And in fact hoped to keep the country together by appeasing the South. Which ironically prolonged the war and the massive casualties. It was only when Lincoln saw the ineffectiveness of his conciliatory policy, that he realized declaring slavery illegal and not returning runaway slaves to the South through the institution of the Proclamation, would bring the ravages of that war to an end.

And here is what Lincoln once personally expressed, and that is nowhere alluded to in the ingratiating portrait of this biopic:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

In conclusion, there’s a much larger, far more compelling and truthful story to be told about that period in US history. Including the Wild West era that followed, and all those dangerous varmints and cowboy outlaws roaming the wilderness, who were actually damaged Southern rebel army vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Which if you hear their side tell it, was the psychological fallout from the first ever war Americans lost, way before Vietnam.

And on a final note, how does Daniel Day-Lewis measure up to Lincoln? Well, literally the height is just about right, with Day-Lewis just shy a few inches of Lincoln’s six foot four stature. But the actor’s discomfort through no fault of his own in portraying a one dimensional, artificially contrived diety rather than a human being and the darker, meatier roles he seems to favor, is evident.

And enough already, of Brits swiping accents with Americans to play them, or vice versa. As with last year’s equally unconvincingly lofty portrayal by Meryl Streep of a whitewashed Margaret Thatcher, in The Iron Lady.

Dreamworks Pictures

Rated PG-13

2 stars

To see the trailer of Lincoln:

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.