Monday, February 25, 2013

Lincoln seen (and analysed)

In a minor triumph of parental pressure to have a 12 (nearly 13) year old boy see an educational movie that he may well not like, I convinced my son to see Lincoln with me yesterday.  He likes history a lot, and maybe has read some Horrible History stuff about the Civil War (he knew about the shooting in the theatre, definitely) so I did have at least something to work on.  Be warned, I said, the movie is mainly about politics, so there is a lot of talking; and you will almost certainly be the youngest person in the audience. (I was right on that count.)

On the drive to the cinema, I gave him a bit of background on Republicans and Democrats in the US, and tried to be helpful by suggesting that he could almost certainly impress his teacher if he could just somehow casually mention to her that he had been to see it.  He could even pretend that he really liked it, even if he didn't.  (He wouldn't be in on this subterfuge.  Kids these days - I don't know.)

So, how did he like it?

Well, I had warned him that I wanted absolutely no complaint during the movie that it was boring, but we did have an argument just before going into the cinema that $5.60 for a regular Slushie was just too expensive. This primed him to be a bit cranky for the first 20 minutes.

But at the end of the day - no, I don't think he found it boring.  Sure, he complained about how a lot of the talk was hard for him to understand, but I could tell that he was always paying attention, if not always for the right reason.  (Tommy Lee Jones, who my kids like a lot from the Men in Black movies, amused him by wearing a bad wig and playing a typically gruff character.)   If it wasn't for the Slushie argument, he might even have admitted to finding it, almost kinda, worthwhile seeing.

So how about me?   It's a thumbs up for being a really fine, intelligent and engaging movie.  I suspect that most people who find it boring may only do so from a point of view that they might have been expecting a more traditional biopic that spans more than the events of the last few months of Abe's life.   

As everyone says, you just can't keep your eyes off Daniel Day Lewis when he is on screen.  In that way it is like the other (to use a hackneyed bit of praise) absolutely mesmerising example of acting in a Spielberg film -  Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. 

I deliberately did not read too many reviews or articles about the movie before seeing it, and I'm glad I took that approach.  You really don't want to know how nitpicking some people have been about its historical accuracy; and furthermore, I have read articles which have complained that some little detail was wrong, yet this has been contradicted in other articles.  Some of the criticism is of the kind "well, that just doesn't seem likely," but surely there are some matters of speculation involved here that no one can really be confident about.   (Even on a matter such as one prominent appearance of the "f" word, some have said this is unlikely; yet my own recent post on when it came into use indicates to me that you could not be certain that no man would use it that way at the time of the Civil War.)   It seems the movie had made everyone an expert on the Lincoln era. 

Overall, I would have to say that, having now read the relevant articles, it impresses me what a serious job Kushner did in trying to convey a movie that is essentially accurate, for a historical drama that has to fill in some details that aren't known.  I believe that Bob Carr, who seems to be a bit of a Lincoln nerd, praises it in this way as well.

One of the best overviews about its basic accuracy was at Slate.  Another short assessment from a historian who knows a lot about one of the key characters (Seward) says that there were plenty of minor points he thought wrong (the shift in some of the chronology is particularly puzzling, I think) but he still praises the movie overall:
All these points, however, are quibbles. Spielberg has made a great movie about Lincoln, Seward, the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil War. With very few exceptions, the actors look like and act like the characters they portray; David Strathairn has Seward completely captured.

Even more persuasive are the relationships between the characters. We experience the interplay between Lincoln and Seward, how Seward could disagree with Lincoln yet serve as his most effective instrument. We see how the two men pursued their great goals, ending the Civil War and ending slavery, and how they were prepared to cut some corners to reach their goals. Spielberg and the actors make history alive in a way in which no author, however gifted, could with mere words.
I liked many of the details of the Lincoln household:  the young son Tad absolutely having the run of the house appears to be completely true.  I didn't know that the Lincolns were famously permissive parents, and Lincoln apparently took joy in playing with them.

Some people have complained a bit about the last ten minutes of the film, which I think is nonsense.  Many are simply hypersensitive above how Spielberg deals with emotion and always label it as sentimentalism.   As with Schindlers List, the ending caught me with an emotional wallop that I wasn't really expecting, and I sensed there were others in the audience suppressing a sniffle too.  (Overall, I feel confident that the audience was not finding the movie disappointing.)

So, all praise again to Spielberg.   And go see it.

Update:  Harold Holzer, one of the historical consultants to the movie, says that some of his suggestions were not followed.  But again, quite a lot of his points are of the "I don't think that's likely" character - not that it is known for sure that it could not have happened.  (Tad looking at the photographic plates, for example.  I thought it was suggested at one point that he was not supposed to be looking at them, and we know that the Lincoln were indulgent of his younger son, so how big a stretch is it really?)

Also - now he says this:
Lincoln may have given short, unmemorable speeches at countless flag-raising ceremonies in Washington, but never was he ever seen, as he is in the movie, fetching his manuscript from the lining of his top hat...

Yet in 2009 he said:
Yes, Lincoln did keep scraps of paper in the inside lining of his top hats — probably more often in the days he rode the legal circuit alone than when he was president and had clerks to help him file things.
 So it seems nitpicky why would he even mention the scene in the movie, then.

Anyway, Holzer still praises the movie overall.

Also - as I noted earlier, the main criticism of the movie has really come from right wing nutters who hate Lincoln even though he was Republican (and they also hate Spielberg too for being a liberal.)  Have a look at the start of the second comment following Holzer's article, for example:
The entire Lincoln Edifice Complex is a sham, a lie and a massive coverup of a tyrant who should have been shot the day before his inauguration.Spielberg adds yet another massive load of Bullshit on top the already Mt Rushmore high pile already extant about this singular mass murderer.
And in Australia, the only criticism of the film as "whitewashing" Lincoln that I have seen is from, you guessed it, the Right, in the form of Chris Berg of the IPA.  (Bolt had a bit of whine as well.)   Typical.

Update 2:  Daniel Day Lewis wins the Oscar, and makes what surely must be the funniest  joke of the evening.

Update 3:  I've stumbled across a very good, detailed article that says that Spielberg and Kushner have actually come up with some of their own legitimate historical arguments regarding motivation.   

Update 4:  A Washington Post article complaining about the lack of depiction of Fredrick Douglas in the movie.  Someone in the comment thread points out that he wasn't in Washington much in the couple of months the movie covers.   I have never seen so many people wanting to re-write a historical drama because of it not taking quite the route they wanted it to take.  Also, its worth some of the Lincoln defending comments there, regarding his attitude to slavery and freedom, like this one.

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