I saw Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis' new masterpiece last night. It was a quite compelling and brilliantly acted film. I really enjoyed myself. But it was also like sitting though a 2 hour history lesson. This is a tremendously dense movie that feels more like a documentary of the political process in the mid-1800s than it does a piece of entertainment. It is an important movie, one that everyone probably should see, but very few people will see because it just isn't mainstream entertainment.
The characters frequently talk in authentic 1800s English, which is sometimes hard to understand. The movie tries to explain some of the backstory and what the political situation was at the time, but it is a very complicated thing. My wife, who is Ivy-league educated and knows more than most Americans about history, was utterly lost at times. Much of the movie is a political fight in the House of Reps between Democrats, Abolitionist Republicans, and more moderate Republicans. She kept on getting confused about who was who, who wanted what, and why different characters were doing different things. I fear that many people will get confused and lose track of the story.
The film is an acting triumph. Daniel Day-Lewis is a shoe-in to get a best actor nomination, no surprise there. He becomes Lincoln. It is scary how close he is to our image of the great president. Tommy Lee Jones is likely to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his portrayal of equal rights activist Thaddeus Stevens. He has amazing power and most of the movie's best moments center around him. I thought Sally Field, as the partially insane First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, was a bit too overwrought and I found the scenes with her tiresome. Then again, I think we are supposed to sympathize with Lincoln's struggles with his wife and family while simultaneously dealing with the most difficult time our nation has ever seen. Similarly, Joseph Gordon Levitt feels a bit extraneous to the film's central story playing Lincoln's oldest son Robert, who desperately wants to leave Harvard so he can join the Union army.
Those are the biggest names, but this movie is dripping with amazing actors. James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson have a pair of fun roles as men employed by the Administration to convince members of congress to change their mind about ratifying the 13th Amendment. David Strathairn does a very nice job as Secretary of State William Seward. Jack Earl Haley ("hey, that's the guy from The Bad News Bears," my wife said) has a small but impressive turn as the Vice-President of the Confederacy. Jared Harris plays Gen Grant without his usual British accent. There are name actors, well-known stars, who just drift in for one scene and a few lines and then disappear again. Dane Dehaan, who was the star of this spring's sci-fi hit Chronicle, shows up at the beginning of the movie for about 30 seconds to recite part of the Gettysburg Address. Gloria Rubin plays Mary Lincoln's maid and mostly just goes from scene to scene with a worried look on her face. I could go on and on. I am telling you, this is the most off-the-charts impressive cast you may ever see on film. It is certain to get a SAG nomination for best ensemble.
The story is the tale of Lincoln desperately trying to get the 13th amendment, the one that abolished slavery, passed through the belligerent House of Representatives. Most of us (heck, I am guilty of being woefully ignorant about this part of our history) probably thought that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, but the movie quickly explains why that action was built on very fragile legal ground and why Lincoln felt he needed the amendment. One of the tricks Lincoln needs to navigate is the fact that while most Americans in the Union thought slavery was a horrible thing, they were not prepared to think of blacks as equals... not even close. The idea of blacks having the vote was abhorrent (funny line where someone in congress screams, "next you'll be telling me that women should be allowed to vote!" which brings everyone in congress to their feet in loud shouts of protest). Giving them anything close to equal legal rights is terrifying to most whites. It all evolves into a fascinating morality play and political thriller... almost a race against time between Lincoln trying to get the amendment through and other forces trying to strike a peace with the South that would kill the amendment.
That said, it is just not going to be a mainstream hit. History buffs and anyone who appreciates fine acting will go gaga over it. But it will probably have trouble finding a wider audience. I'll be shocked if it can generate more than maybe $60 or 70 mill of boxoffice. The only way they can make it do more than that is probably to lie in the marketing and pretend it is a movie filled with exciting war scenes. In truth, there is one battle in the film, in the beginning, and it lasts for less than 3 minutes.
It is worth noting that the film almost feels like a propaganda film for Republicans. They are the overwhelming good guys here and the Democrats are not likeable at all (except for the ones who agree to switch their votes to help the amendment pass). Had this come out before the election, I actually think it could have raised a bit of a controversy. Any concerns that the extremely liberal Spielberg would color the film with his own personal political views are unfounded in my mind.
Finally, an amusing side note -- imagine being an unknown actor and finding out you have won the role of Robert E. Lee in a movie about the end of the Civil War, a film directed by Steven Spielberg! You'd be over the moon excited! This is your big break! Well, the guy who plays Lee does not have a single line. It was kinda funny. Heck, I am not even sure everyone in the audience knew he was supposed to be Robert E Lee, he is just so guy with white hair riding away from a meeting at the Appomattox Courthouse.
--Jason "I strongly urge folks to see this movie... but I did the same for Cloud Atlas and America didn't listen to me then either" Evans
Don't ruin the ending for me!
(thanks for the review, looks like an important film)
I highly recommend Carl Sandberg's biography of Lincoln written about a generation or two removed -- extremely well-written as you would expect, more about the story than the footnotes if you know what I mean.
Eat Mor Jonny.
I am curious to see how the political process is portrayed, and the elected representatives. It was around this time that "politician" became a vocation.
--Jason "now, if Spielberg has changed the name of the leading Democratic opposition congressman to Barak, I would have objected to that " Evans
I'm continually amazed by how many British and Irish actors pull off convincing American accents. Do any American actors do the same in the UK?Jared Harris plays Gen Grant without his usual British accent
Damian Lewis (and half the rest of the cast of Band of Brothers) in Homeland
Idris Elba in the Wire
Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty), also in the Wire (though I thought his accent was pretty poor in the first season)
Jason O'Mara in Life on Mars
Johnny Lee Miller (played an American in Dexter, and had so convincing of an accent in Trainspotting many people think he's Scottish)
Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes in Walking Dead). Incidentally, the show has a few other brits too: David Morrissey (the Governor) and Lauran Cohan (Maggie), though wiki tells me she was born in Philly and moved to England as a young teen. The interview I saw with her, she definitely had an English accent.
Of course Hugh Laurie as House.
Thanks for the review ... I was especially interested in your comments about the pivotal role of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens.
It's funny how the men who fought hardest and most effectivetovely to destroy slavery in tis country have been either abused or ignored by popular history -- i.e. Hollywood. They turned John Brown into a wide-eyed manic (if he was really such a crazy monster, why did he become such a hero in the North?), they have ignored William Lloyd Garrison and they have consistently slandered Thaddeus Stevens.
Lionel Barrymore's Stevens is the villain in Tennessee Johnson (about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson) and is treated even worse in the Birth of the Nation (where everybody knew the villanous Austin Stoneman was a thinly viewed portrait of Stevens). Well, maybe I shouldn't complain -- in the TV ministries North and South, Stevens becomes vice presidentof the United States, an office he never held (although he was once known as the dictator of congress).
I'm hoping that one of the heroes of the anti-slavery fight gets his due in Spielberg's film. It would be great if we could get a decent movie about Garrison -- I was interested in the joke you quoted from the movie, Jason -- about how a congressman complains that next they will be wanting to give women the vote. After the passage of te 13th amendment killed slavery, Garrison devoted the rest of his life to pushing for equal rights for women! If the Brits could finally honor William Wilberforce (their great anti-slavery crusader) with Amazing Grace, I'd think we could get a Garrison film.
But I gues it's unfair to wish for a mythical film when we have a real one to check out. I look forward to seeing it.
Thanks for this review, Jason. You and A.O. Scott have become my go-to reviewers, and I must tell you...I've been looking forward to this movie ever since it was first rumored that Liam Neeson would be playing the part of Lincoln.
I do not know enough about Civil War history, but it is surely my favorite subject. That this is more than a movie but borderline documentary makes me embarrasingly giddy.
America went gaga for Titanic. We need more stuff like this. Can't friggin' wait to see it.
Mike, I am right there with you... been waiting for this one since... jeez, when did Spielberg first get the rights? 2000? 2001? My absolute favorite director (my entire life I wanted to be him... in fact, Tisch at NYU was my #1 college choice until the age of maybe 16) and my absolute favorite subject.
That said... I am a bit sad about the focus of it. I had really hoped for a good, standard biographical piece, one that would address his youth, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and for me more important the damn war itself! I have to admit, if someone said "There is a 12 hour Lincoln movie. Think "Saving Private Ryan" but in the Civil War and with more talking and politics" I would literally pee myself with excitement. I want to see Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Grant, Sherman, McClellan! I want to see a modern film that shows the first shot at Sumter, the civilians trampled at Bull Run, the Irish marching on the Sunken Lane at Antietam, Pickett leading his men across the Emmitsburg Pike, the Crater at Petersburg... So I am SO very sad to hear that there is just about no actual depiction of the war itself. That almost squashes my fervor. Almost.
That said... can't wait. A history lesson? Sounds great!
Then, bring on another eight movies in the Master and Commander series. And then finally a modern movie about Napoleon and his wars across Europe. Please. PLEASE.
Gettysburg (1993), faithful to Michael Shaara's Pulitzer prize novel Killer Angels. The fiction is limited to educated guessing about the nature of conversations which must have occurred. Everything, even the conversations, is as faithful to to historical accuracy as possible. All made possible by Jason's former boss, Ted Turner, who greenlighted the film where no one else would.
Of course it is limited to the battle and does not provide the overview of the Civil War persons you seek. Still, for Lee, Longstreet, McClellan, Stuart, Chamberlain, Pickett and Armistead, as well as others, it is outstanding.
Not to hijack the thread, but perhaps my all-time favorite example of this is the movie Dead Again, in which Kenneth Branagh plays two characters (one American, and I think the other one was German, or maybe Austrian), and his then-wife Emma Thompson also plays two characters (both American, if I recall correctly). Branagh's German accent is a little hackneyed, but both pulled off the American accents flawlessly.
As for Americans doing British accents, well, there was Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones. And of course, Kevin Costner as Robin Hood.
Now now, I love me some Gettysburg. But some of the beards were just not very realistic. Some were good, but some were tough on the eyes. And as a history guy some of the images of Confederates who were clearly recently supplied (didn't happen happen with the ANV at that stage of the war) and generously fed (which hadn't happened since before Antietam) did remove me a little bit from a "you are watching it happen" and instead leave me in a "you are watching a large, somewhat farby reenactment." And I say that with some love; I know a BUNCH of people who walk past in that movie! Personally I would just hope that a big budget movie with the cast and, more importantly, the director that "Lincoln" has would produce some ACW scenes that are a bit more in the vein of Ryan than Gettysburg.
That said, G'Burg's Buford was fantastic, as was Daniels as Chamberlain
I'm glad to see they used proper language stylings. Also, glad to hear they directed what is known, and historically correct, that Lincoln had a high-pitched voice. Quite strange to think of such a large man having such a characteristic.
I am on Lord Ash's team for a modern produced epic proportioned Civil war film.
What's your favorite beer? "The fifth one, I think. That's the one that makes me handsome and fearless."
"These were the Dark Ages. Ages darker the anyone had ever expected."
I get a kick out of seeing Gary Oldman in movies for just this reason - sometimes I'll watch 20 or 30 minutes without even realizing it's him because of his every changing appearance and the skill he has at accents.
He's well known for being able to do all kinds of things with his voice, but I thought it was pretty fun when I read recently that when he got a part in a movie where he plays an Englishman (which he actually is), he had to hire a voice coach because he had lost his natural British accent.
Saw Lincoln last night and was blown away. As some of you may know, this is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, so Civil War themed book and movies are apropos. Our town read, on a city-wide basis, Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer prize fiction winner Killer Angels. That’s the book which Ted Turner turned into the movie Gettysburg (1993). Both, of course, were fictional only in that Shaara had to invent some dialogue to fit the circumstances; otherwise, they were historically accurate.
Similarly, Lincoln is historically accurate, and draws on material found in presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. So historical accuracy is a highlight here.
And, it looks to me like director Steven Spielberg and screenplay writer extraordinaire Tony Kushner worked very hard to recreate the atmosphere and politics of the last six months of the war.
Primarily, Lincoln wanted to establish a clearly constitutional basis for abolishing slavery. That meant amending the Constitution by adding the 13th Amendment. That was an extremely difficult undertaking, given the then pro-slave Democrats as well as some timid Republicans.
From a movie standpoint, you’d think following that storyline would be a bit on the dry side. But Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln puts the lie to that notion. His performance is a tour de force—it should earn him an AA nomination if not the outright win. And the movie has a huge cast, to account for all of the historical people involved in supporting and opposing the effort to amend the Constitution. Lincoln needed the amendment urgently as he could see that the war was ending. What, then, of the slaves if the Confederate states rejoined the Union but who had been freed on the shaky legal grounds set forth in the Emancipation Proclamation? Do their owners get to reclaim their “property?” If so, then the war and the blood shed for their cause would have been a complete waste.
The film has lots of well-known actors, ranging from David Straithorne to Walton Goggins, the bad guy in Justified. Here Goggins plays against type as a weak-kneed Congressman who is against slavery, but too cowed to vote against it. Tommy Lee Jones is powerful as Thaddeus Stevens, the firebrand who is eager to go further than simple emancipation, all the way to the right to vote. Crowd favorite Joseph Gordon-Levitt has an understated role as Robert Lincoln. And finally, on the distaff side, there is the wonderful Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln. She’s very good in a limited way. Some think her performance deserves an AA nomination for best supporting actress. I like her and I liked her performance, but this is not AA stuff.
This movie is a must for Civil War buffs and should be required of every high school student. In saying that, please do not conclude that I think it is pedantic, though much can be learned. Instead, it is fiery and warm. Above all, it is entertaining. I only wish that the identities of the various congressmen (and even the cabinet members) were more clear.
There is a small amount of coarse language; nothing any teenager hasn't heard. Don't be put off by it. You probably won't notice.