I’m a fan of Tony Kushner, so I was interested to see what kind of a script he’d produce for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. A better title would be St. Lincoln, since only rarely do we get a real feel for Lincoln the man, mostly it’s Lincoln the icon. Actually, a more appropriate title would be The Thirteenth Amendment, which is really what the movie is about.

Lincoln is pushing to get the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives before making peace with the Confederacy, since everyone expects that the Emancipation Proclamation, which was based on the President’s war-time powers, was not likely to stand up in court once military actions were over.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by West Wing, but I expected to see a politician in action. Instead, Lincoln hovers above the fray, a mostly grave but sometime humorous presence, like a pastor weighed down by the sins of his congregation. While I have no doubt that Lincoln was under enormous pressures that he truly was a noble figure, he was also a politician, and no politician who claws his way to national office is a saint.

It’s not a bad film, though the opening is klunky, and it’s got a bit of a PBS feel. Spielberg is admirably restrained – I don’t care for a lot of his films – and it’s not manipulative. In fact, the assassination happens off-screen, which I appreciated. That Spielberg trusted the audience to have their own feelings about this rather than manipulating the entire theater into tears was very welcome.

The role of blacks in the film was a bit disappointing as well: it was limited to servants and soldiers. It would have been nice to see Frederick Douglas get a little screen time. In some respects, the film honored Thaddeus Stevens almost as much as Lincoln, and his speeches were a bright spot in what was usually a very stately production.

Update: NPR did a story that also mentioned the black experience was left out of Lincoln, with particular focus on Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley.


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