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Film review: Steven Spielberg's take on 'Lincoln'

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After reading approximately 200 books on the subject, Steven Spielberg’s politically correct screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner, decided it would be best to focus on the last four months of President Lincoln’s presidency and the fight over the 13th Amendment, rather than covering Lincoln’s entire term in office.

Apparently, Spielberg concurred, concluding that a full-blown rendering of Lincoln’s presidency would be unwieldy and the more narrow focus would perhaps be more dramatically effective. He could have proffered up a three and a half hour spectacle, covering many of the significant bases of Lincoln’s political and personal life, beginning with the first Inauguration, with full knowledge that it’s been done before quite effectively (Sam Waterston’s and Mary Tyler Moore’s magisterial performances in the 1988 TV movie adaptation of ‘Gore Vidal’s Lincoln’ come to mind).

First and foremost, what’s missing here is little sense of Lincoln’s brilliance as a master politician. Since most of the movie focuses on the machinations in the House of Representatives, focusing on the fight over the passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln’s input is minimal. Tommy Lee Jones, as Radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens, steals the show with his brilliant performance as the fiery abolitionist representative, who ends up giving up his quest for equal rights for blacks in order to have slavery abolished, with the passage of the 13th Amendment. Spielberg’s opus is supposed to be based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, ‘Team of Rivals’–but where is the ‘team’?

All the fascinating characters from Lincoln’s cabinet are missing interacting with one another. In the Gore Vidal movie, both Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Chase’s political ambitions are dissected and we actually get a sense of what their personalities are like. Here, David Strathairn as Seward, stands around with nothing much to do as Lincoln’s adviser. Lincoln actually had to balance the conflicting positions and personalities of the members of his cabinet. This is effectively conveyed in both Gore Vidal’s novel and TV adaptation but not at all in Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’.Wonderful peripheral figures who are an integral part of the Lincoln story are lost due to Spielberg and Kushner’s onerous decision to ignore the earlier history. The 1988 biopic includes them: Kate Chase, Salmon Chases’ daughter, who married the “boy governor” of Rhode Island; millionaire businessman turned General, William Sprague; Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s debate rival; Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner and McClellan, Lincoln’s failed first general, who later opposed him in the Election of 1864.

Spielberg is more interested in the arcane: focusing on the minor figures from the House of Representatives–now lost to history. Spielberg and Kushner spend so much time on the vote in the House of Representatives, as if this is the defining moment of Lincoln’s presidency. Perhaps from a modern perspective, yes! But I found it hard to believe that the bells were chiming and there were was a giant parade in pro-rebel Washington, D.C., on the day the 13th Amendment was passed. The real cheering was on April 9, 1865, when the South surrendered. The end of the war was of course the main concern of the people of the time, not necessarily the abolition of slavery.

Watching Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, one can hardly realise that there was indeed a dark side to our 16th President. The suspension of Habeas Corpus and Lincoln’s prosecution of political enemies without due process of law, is an aspect of the Lincoln presidency hardly addressed in Spielberg’s flattering hagiography. Lincoln’s view of African-Americans was decidedly less progressive than Spielberg lets on here. Even shortly before the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was still entertaining schemes of colonisation for blacks in South America and Africa.And what of Mary Todd Lincoln? Sally Field looks a lot more like Mary Todd than Mary Tyler Moore did in the 1988 mini-series, but Moore truly turns the President’s wife into a fully-realised character. With Kushner’s sketchy script, Field only is able to touch upon a few of the major points of Mary Todd’s life in the White House. In the Gore Vidal movie, we actually get to see and FEEL the devastating effect son Willie’s death had upon her, as it occurs in real-time. Here (like so many of the earlier events during the Lincoln Presidency), it is only alluded to. What’s more, Mary Todd’s meltdowns (probably today characterised as ‘bipolar’) are only tangentially dealt with, as opposed to the earlier TV movie, where they are an integral part of the story.

Kushner creates a non-part for the character of Elizabeth Keckley, the African-American dressmaker turned servant to Mary Todd Lincoln. In the 1988 biopic, there’s actually a relationship shown between the two women, with Keckley morphing into a confidante, in effect acting as a sounding board for Mary Todd Lincoln’s actual views on slavery. In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, there’s an unlikely scene where Keckley confronts Lincoln on the front porch of the White House, musing about the future fate of African-Americans in the U.S.

Daniel Day Lewis is as good as Sam Waterston but unfortunately he just doesn’t have a good script to work with. Probably the best scene in the film is the confrontation between Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens in the White House pantry. But because none of the other ‘team of rivals’ is developed, Lincoln has hardly anyone to play off of here. Spielberg’s attempt to examine Lincoln’s personal life also falls flat. The melodramatic scene where he slaps son Robert, feels completely out of character.

Before you praise Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ to the hilt, go out and purchase Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Sam Waterston is simply excellent as the politician and the man, warts and all. As usual, Spielberg’s production values far outshine the low-budget efforts on television. Ultimately, one should expect more from the famed director instead of his narrow focus on such an iconic figure.

Lewis Papier.