1. Wow. Impressive film-making at every level: casting and script particularly, but obviously on its game in every area. From at least the mid-90s to the present, the Hollywood establishment has been floundering, and partly because it really is guilty of some of the sins conservatives like John Nolte of Big Hollywood have accused it of, but none of those failings is on display here. With the John Williams’ music ringing in your ears, you leave thinking: Hollywood rules!
2. The casting is particularly impressive—Daniel Day Lewis, of course (although I remain unsure about how he delivered the Second Innagural), Sally Fields, Tommy Lee Jones, and David Strathairn—but is perhaps even more so for the minor parts. They found a guy, for example, who could do a spitting image presentation of CSA V.P. Alexander Stephens. Like so many of the scores of “minor parts,” in the film, often portrayals of politicians, the Stephens character is a real presence, and his few lines are framed and delivered with great significance.
3. “Political History” takes center stage here. Legislative debate-sessions, moments with Lincoln and his top councilors, questions of Constitutional interpretation, and one-on-one vote-wheedling pitches. Very refreshingly adult, and without most of the usual emotional cues. Un-Spielbergian in that way. Subtle dramatic art, and no less powerful for it. The plot is interesting, and yet the material is above most audience members’ heads. Two persons I saw it with who are not well-versed in U.S. history, my wife and a friend, enjoyed the film. My friend, whose movie tastes are in some ways more mainstream, more open to the action-type-film, expressed some frustration with the level of detail, the many debates, etc., but both generally enjoyed it.
4. The story here, primarily about the Congressional phase of the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage, is not terribly well-known: also amid my viewing companions was my friend and Lincoln scholar Lucas Morel, and while I emerged feeling a bit guilty for not having previously known how close the vote on the Amendment was, Lucas confessed to the same basic ignorance. It’s just one of those episodes that for whatever reason, historians have not paid much attention to. Lucas of course was able to school us on many other of the film’s details, such as the Hampton Roads peace-feeler talks with CSA delegates near the end of the war, but still. The political history presented in this film is at times above everyone’s heads! Kushner and Speilberg still make it work. Will be interesting to see what the historians best qualified to speak on this episode say about it.
5. That’s one thing to always remember about history–wherever we have the records that allow us to reconstruct the history of even just one month of republican politics, we always find a level of complexity totally missing from most survey accounts. You aren’t any sort of student of history if you only read books that cover 10 years or more–you just aren’t. And sometimes, even more minute detail, about a month in 1865, or five days in May 1940, are needed. With this film, we learn that an event that could have changed the fortunes of Reconstruction dramatically–an early defeat of the Thirteenth Amendment, almost happened! And, shockingly, almost none of us knew this until seeing this film.
6. One thing I forgot to ask Lucas about, although I’m not sure he knows either, was a key political choice Lincoln makes, which is to press forward for Congressional approval of the amendment during a lame-duck session, in which he faced more Democratic opposition than he would have only a few months later. Was it this, and this alone, that made the vote close? And if so, wasn’t it imprudent of Lincoln to have risked a public defeat of the Amendment, when he perhaps could have easily passed it later?
7. I have no complaints about the historical accuracy of the film. Lucas had none either, but noted that an early exchange of Lincoln’s with two black soldiers was almost certainly made-up.
8. I have no political-agenda complaints about the film. Lucas had none either.
9. There is a salutary emphasis on the presence of deception in politics, of both Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens making statements that were lawyer-ly and not perfectly frank, of not letting the public know, or be fully exposed to, their opinions on a number of controversial Reconstruction issues, black suffrage particularly.
10. I suppose one could read a vindication of Obama’s trimming and lying about his opposition to gay marriage into that. It’s just that in giving us the real Thaddeus and Abe, I think the film actually reveals how much more artful and serious about the charge of falsehood politicians of that time were than Obama. Obama trims, fibs, delays, obfuscates, and declines to comment like many a politician, but unlike these older ones, he also often does this Soviet-esque Big Lie thing: he gives us a bald-faced falsehood, about which he then does a let-me-be-clear obfuscation of what he lied about, refuses to answer any more questions about it, and the press refuses to keep pressing him on it. His lying is at another level, and requires (and encourages) a more cynical “that’s politics” attitude on the part of the public. At the specific level, I don’t think a close comparison of his sort of trimming on gay marriage would compare all that favorably to the sort we see Lincoln and Stevens engaging in here. I’m open to correction on that last point by anyone who actually conducts such a comparison. Still, while some trace of Kushner’s and Speilberg’s politics, and judgment of Obama, must be somewhere in the film, they have appropriately restrained themselves from doing anything remotely obvious. To their credit, I can’t know that the thought about Obama’s gay marriage deceptions even crossed their minds.
11. Go see it. And then go see it again. Encourage this kind of film-making.
More at Powerline.