"I take orders from the Octoboss."


After the election on Tuesday, which brought us 4 historic gay rights ballot victories, the first openly gay Senator and the most women in the Senate ever, it was a no-brainer to spend Friday night watching Spielberg’s movie about Abraham Lincoln and his people’s fight to eke together a coalition to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution, ending 400 years of slavery. Also, SKYFALL was sold out.

It’s true, I tried to see SKYFALL, but it was actually kind of exciting to have to switch to plan B. I’ll watch any Spielberg picture, and the history ones usually I’m a little slower to run out and see, but Abraham Lincoln is really interesting to me, so this is different. And I’d like to see James Bond get a bunch of racist assholes to agree to end slavery before the Civil War ends and takes away their biggest incentive to get it done. I don’t think he could do it. Also Lincoln’s taller.

As much as I enjoyed ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, I don’t mind them doing this BATMAN BEGINS style stripped-down-and-more-grounded-in-reality franchise reboot. You can put different spins on it ’cause there’s just so many aspects to the property that the fans love.

It covers a different period of Lincoln’s life, and I don’t just mean that it leaves out the vampires. Like some of the best biopictures it doesn’t try to skim through his whole life. It doesn’t show him as a kid writing on a shovel and chopping wood and wrestling and shit. Save that for the prequels. Most of the movie takes place in January 1865, the month leading up to the deadline he’s set himself for passing the 13th amendment. So it uses a small part of his life as a representative of the whole, kind of like how CAPOTE sticks to the writing of In Cold Blood or INVICTUS sticks to Mandela trying to unite the country through that one rugby game or BLADE just deals with his battle with Deacon Frost. These fun-sized life stories can tell us more about the person’s talents, their motivations, their human flaws, their historic importance and what not than a surface-level run through of major milestones from cradle to grave.

I’ve mentioned before my love for the book Manhunt and how it takes this famous event in American history (in that case John Wilkes Booth’s assassination conspiracy and attempted escape) but shows me how little I actually knew about it and how many fascinating aspects there are to it. Same thing here, there’s way more drama than I knew or thought about. Lincoln’s cabinet, most notably Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), think he’s crazy for even trying to find enough votes to build a 2/3 majority and pass the amendment. The “Radical Republican” abolitionists don’t all agree on how to achieve this abolition. Plenty of more moderate Republicans are against slavery, but don’t believe in equality. Many fear “the Negro vote,” or a deluge of former slaves coming up north. Many only want to end slavery because they think it will end the war.

As Lincoln explains in one of the many standout monologue scenes, he’s confident that the war will end soon and fears that his use of war powers for the Emancipation Proclamation may not have been legal or hold up in peace time. He’s carrying this horrific war on his back but he has to make sure it doesn’t end before he’s able to stop this other even greater crime.

But before all that, in a great opening scene, they introduce us to Lincoln sitting outside one night talking to soldiers. We learn about him by what people say to him. There’s a great dynamic between the two black soldiers (one confronts him about a list of racial inequalities, the other seems embarrassed) and then two white ones (one seems more starstruck and emotional than the other, both try to recite the Gettysburg Address).  We don’t see Lincoln give the address, because that was earlier, so instead we get to hear people talk about it. It’s legendary.

Spielberg also humanizes Lincoln in subtle ways, like by showing how cold it is all the time. He’s often hunched over, bundled up in blankets or goofy looking winter coats. He tries to be a sensitive and loving father and husband, but knows he has to keep family moments brief to step away and deal with the god damn Civil War. Sorry, Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt, no Bruce Willis nose), dad only has time to shake your hand and welcome you home real quick. Suck it up.

Little brother Tad (Gulliver McGrath) likes to sneak a look at photos of slaves. A morbid fascination, a curiosity about this crazy thing that goes on in this world, about these people he’s never met whose freedom his dad will give his life for. Dad tells him it’ll give him nightmares. It’s like a scary movie.

This Lincoln tends to answer questions with long, at first unrelated stories. I know at least one of them is a joke that he really told according to Doris Kearns Goodwin (this is based on part of her book Team of Rivals). So I don’t know how much of that is the real Lincoln and how much is playwright-turned-screenwriter Tony Kushner showing off. They’re good stories, but in one scene a guy can’t stand to listen to another god damn story and storms out of the room in protest. Abe seems oblivious and tells the story anyway.

I was thinking that LINCOLN and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER had almost the same shadow shot, but it turns out VAMPIRE HUNTER’s was a silhouette and was sideways. False alarm.

Holy shit, Daniel Day-Lewis! For years I was excited for Liam Neeson to play Lincoln in this, and I wish I could know what that would’ve been like, but I can’t imagine he would’ve been this good. This Lincoln seems so kind and thoughtful, eloquent but soft spoken, able to be a little playful even when everybody else is ready to shit their pants over these problems he faces. It’s weird to feel this way about a historical drama, but I kinda want to keep watching the movie just to be around this guy.

It’s a complete transformation – how is this the same actor from THERE WILL BE BLOOD? The only thing the performances have in common is greatness. And the makeup is so good that there were maybe 3 or 4 moments in the movie where I caught his eyes at a certain angle or something and remembered oh yeah, that’s what Daniel Day-Lewis looks like under that. 99% of the time he just looks like Lincoln. And if IMDb’s right he’s only 6′ 1 1/2″ tall, not a giant, so they must’ve used Hobbitvision or something ’cause he convincingly towers over everybody.

Everybody else is great too, and when I say “everybody else” I mean all of the other actors that there are, because they’re all in this. Everybody but I think Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender. The rest of ’em are in here and can all be proud. It was fun to play a game of “name the actor I didn’t know was gonna be in this.” I got James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, the guy from A SIMPLE MAN, Walton Goggins (!), Lukas Haas, and the kid from CHRONICLE. I do have to subtract two points though for incorrectly identifying Bruce McGill as an aging Christopher McDonald.

Kushner is famous for the play Angels In America, but to me he’s the guy who wrote MUNICH. Obviously this is less of a genre movie than that one, but it’s another one that wrestles with big ideas in the middle of a surprisingly entertaining story. In this one it’s not because it’s a badass thriller, but because it’s surprisingly funny. The character of Thaddeus Stevens gets alot of the laughs with all his legislative shit-talking, with second place probly going to James Spader as a sleazy individual released from jail to help Lincoln get the votes.

That’s another interesting part: Honest Abe is willing to play a little dirty for this. He’s dealing with idiots who he’s willing to trick and manipulate if necessary. It might be a moral quandary if it wasn’t GOD DAMN SLAVERY he was up against.

Some people probly expect this to be corny Oscar bait type shit, especially being Spielberg’s next movie after WAR HORSE, but it’s not like that. I can only think of one line that made me think, “Well, that might be a little much.” One scene that could easily come off as pandering to modern sensibilities – when the Congressmen all lose their shit about the concept of women some day having the right to vote – works as a really powerful and darkly humorous reminder of how fuckin stupid we’re gonna look to our descendants as society continues its eternal journey down the path of liberty and equality.

Obviously Spielberg and Kushner make Lincoln out to be a great man and hugely important to American history, but it does this by demonstrating his political genius in action. Not as much highfalutin music and heroic camera angles as you’d expect, and no scenery chewing by the president. But he definitely gets to show off in many long take monologue scenes. The camera work is very subdued, none of the showboating moves I enjoy. Spielberg keeps it simple and intimate, I guess to contrast with the epic subject matter. (Of course Janusz Kaminski [SCHINDLER’S LIST, COOL AS ICE] is the director of photographing, so it looks beautiful.

There’s definitely some similarities with AMISTAD. Both movies are about white politicians trying their damndest to cleverly trick the system into allowing some justice for black slaves. These are the good guys, but they’re kinda clueless in some ways. In AMISTAD there’s this deeply uncomfortable feeling as the Africans in question are sitting in the court room the whole time as the white people argue over their fate. LINCOLN makes a point of showing the gallery filled with blacks as the whites decide things. In one of the most unsettling moments, Stevens has to eat shit and claim not to believe in racial equality in order to convince the other assholes to go along with “equality under the law only.” He keeps looking up into the balcony, and it pains him. Mary Todd (Sally Field) applauds the political victory while her black friend (Gloria Reuben) runs out of the room in disgust.

By the way, don’t be intimidated, this is a 2 1/2 hour movie, but that’s only 6 minutes longer than SKYFALL. I know it’s not every day you’re gonna feel in the mood to watch a movie about civil war era political strategies, but whenever you do this is the movie to watch.

This entry was posted on Monday, November 12th, 2012 at 2:23 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

43 Responses to “Lincoln”

  1. Lincoln’s not playing where I live till this Friday

    so if you’ll pardon me I’m gonna avoid reading this review or any comments till I’ve seen the movie myself *ducks out door*

  2. I’m glad Walton Goggins is getting roles in high profile movies. He’s in this, he’s in Django Unchained…not every year you get to work with both Spielberg AND Tarantino(yet he’s still willing to make an unannounced guest appearance as a transvestite hooker in Sons of Anarchy)! Dude is a great actor, and from what I hear, a really nice guy in real life.

  3. Also great to see Tommy Lee Jones getting a great dramatic role. He’s been kind of coasting, but this year he’s had two projects that featured the strange ritual known as acting

  4. Damn that John Williams and his highfalutin music! I hope he burns in hell!

  5. Oh man, the Goggs is in this? I’ve really got to see it now.

  6. 1) Skyfall is phe-nomenal, and man can I not wait to read your review, Vern. Probably my favorite Bond ever, and I’m a die-hard. (Fan. Of Bond. Since I know that phrase has other meanings in this dojo.)

    2) But this is a great review too, and makes me far more excited to see Lincoln than I had been (not a fan of Amistad or, generally, Spielberg). Do you know, Vern, if anybody plays Ely Parker, the Seneca Native American turned lawyer turned Erie Canal engineer turned Union officer? One of my favorite Americans of all time, and somebody said they thought he was in this. Think I could die happy if so.

  7. PS. Talking to myself, but IMDB says Parker is in it, played apparently by a NA actor. Tell me they gave him something to do!

  8. Ben, I think he is! There’s an officer who appears to be Native American seen in some scenes with Ulysses S. Grant. I didn’t know who he was but based on what I see on wikipedia about him that must’ve been meant to be him.

  9. Oh, missed your followup there. So the news is bad then, he’s seen but doesn’t speak or anything.

  10. Ah, crap. Well, you know those silent Indians.

  11. PS. I’ve come this far, so I’ll self-horn-toot a bit more and say that if anybody’s interested in Ely, here’s a blog post of mine about him: http://americanstudier.blogspot.com/2010/11/november-17-2010-another-nominee-for.html. Would love to hear your thoughts, of course. Thanks!

  12. NYT is calling LINCOLN racist.

    Wait I’m sorry, for having too passive black characters.


  13. I just don’t see why they couldn’t have given Lincoln a wacky black sidekick. Marlon Wayans could have played the Secretary of Making Me Feel Embarrassed To Be A Human Being, like he always does.

  14. I’m still shocked and offended that they didn’t cast a black man in the role of Lincoln.

  15. “Calling LINCOLN racist” is too harsh a description. I think she’s being more nitpicky than she says, but it’s a good article, makes fair points about how the movie could’ve been even better.

  16. Sounds like the Ely Parker and Keckley uses are somewhat similar in that way. Good to have ’em on screen, would be great to acknowledge a bit more fully the amazing things they did. Obv. Keckley is more central to Lincoln’s story than Parker, but same idea. But hey, just means more great movies remain to be made!

  17. I think part of the point of the movie, like AMISTAD, is to have a bunch of white people talking about the future of all the black people. To the racists, it’s no big deal. But to our heroes… well, they get to be kind of uncomfortable with it. I like the dialogue between Lincoln and Gloria Reubens, which sums up this awkwardness of this, and of Lincoln having to tacitly admit being not only part, but HEAD of a system which in general supports this kind of stunning inhumanity, even if he’s trying to end it. In order to get it done, he has to give respect to a bunch of cracker assholes who literally don’t acknowledge the humanity of an entire race. Pretty uncomfortable.

    Anyway, I for one feel it would be way more patronizing to shoehorn in a black guy just so that every movie about race has a more assertive black character. We get the soldier at the start; that’s enough to give us good perspective. And, pleasingly, we get several different kinds of black characters here, with differing motives and opinions, even in the same scene. Wow, black people are not all the same!

    Overall, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed LINCOLN. My one complaint was that I thought they ought to just have called it THE 13TH AMMENDMENT and ditched the subplots about Lincoln’s family, which are not fleshed out enough to stand on their own but also contribute little to the story. The end, especially, seems extraneous. We know how Lincoln died, why throw in like 2 minutes to show us when it’s not connected at all to the main narrative?

  18. Maybe Spielberg thought it’d be best left to, you know, a black person to tell the story the author of that article wanted to see. It’s kinda worrying that she failed to spot the irony of expecting an almost entirely white production team to make sure black people are seen as appropriately assertive.

  19. I would love to see Joseph Gordon Levitt wear a Daniel Day Lewis nose. If the kid is smart, then he would make prosthetic noses his gimmick. Just like Johnny Depp wears a different kind of head ware for each role, Levitt should wear a different schnoz.

  20. By the way, Vern, not to be that guy, but my Lincoln-fanatic friend points out that the movie actually takes place in January 1865, not 1864 (13th Ammendment passed the Senate in 1864 but didn’t pass the [SPOILER] house until Jan. 1865).

  21. I haven’t seen Lincoln, yet, so I don’t know if the NYTimes article has a point or not. I do wonder if Lincoln the movie is being target not because it itself is particularly egregious, but because of the terrible history of black representation in the cinema. It’s kind of like the argument surrounding the TV show Girls. People complained that Girls, about privileged 20-something women in New York, had a dearth of black characters. But it seems to me that what people were really upset about is a lack of minority characters in television in general. Girls just happened to be the show that got picked on.

    Again, I haven’t seen the film, so maybe the article is spot on. I do remember hearing similar arguments about Amistad. And, while it is unfortunate that that film’s setting takes place in the legal realm, where white men solely had a voice, Amistad did attempt to show the enslaved Africans take part in their legal defense. Arguably, the film is still problematic, but you can’t say that Amistad didn’t at least attempt to grapple with the representation of blacks as active agents of history. Likewise, Lincoln seems to focus on the machinations of government, another realm where blacks had little voice. The author of the article mentions that famous black characters like Frederick Douglass are nowhere to be found. I think a real solution to the problem she brings up is not necessarily more African-American characters in a historical drama, but a historical drama about African-American characters. In other words, where’s my movie about Frederick fuckin’ Douglass!?

  22. So there’s nothing about how Harriet Tubman helped Lincoln free the country from vampires by carrying silver on the Underground Railroad with Mary Todd? I expected more from Spielberg.

    And ditto to what RBatty said.

  23. Anyone want to talk about the politics of this movie? Or are we just sick of the whole subject and would prefer to never hear about partisan politics in Washington again, if that’s all the same? Obviously, this movie has something very fundamental to say about the difficulty in doing the right thing when battle lines have been so clearly drawn. But does it actually have anything to teach us about how to make our current government work?

  24. The troubling part about applying it now is that Lincoln has to use some trickery to get it done, and questionable use of war powers before that. There’s sort of a Machiavellian aspect to it, but of course we all agree with it because it’s such a clear evil that he’s fighting. We wouldn’t be so comfortable though with modern presidents having the same attitude toward something that’s not slavery.

    On the other hand I think some of the ways they have to maneuver and compromise to get things through the system do kind of remind me of Obama’s approach with the Affordable Health Care Act, among other things. We hate to see Tommy Lee Jones having to pretend to be a racist and we hate to see some of the things Obama had to give up but once it gets the legislation through and we can see the beginnings of progress it seems to be worth it.

  25. To me, the most interesting thing is that they’ve reached the same stalemate that we have today. Nobody is going to be convinced, nobody is interested in listening. The issue is fucking SLAVERY, but they still have to pretend that everyone’s opinion is valid. Well, at a certain point you can’t do that anymore, you just have to make sure the right thing is done and democracy be damned. You just better be real damn sure that what you’re doing is the right thing. Trouble is, EVERYONE thinks that. We’re all trusting our own moral compasses, but coming up with completely different directions, and sure we can’t fundamentally allow the malevolent other side to win. Lincoln ended up on the right side of history, but it could just as easily have been someone else. As far as I can discern, the best lesson to take from the movie is to do what you have to do to win, but be right. And I don’t know how useful that is if we’re at all willing to question our own prejudices and ideals.

  26. well I just back and damn, this is a fantastic movie, DDL BECAME Abraham Lincoln, I mean it literally felt to me like you were watching the real Lincoln, it’s downright eerie and amazing at the same time

    and guess what? I cried a bit at the end, what can I say? the movie makes Lincoln feel so real and sympathetic that it really drives the tragedy home, it’s not often that a movie makes me cry

  27. I’m a little disappointed you guys aren’t discussing this movie more

  28. I dont know how it is elsewhere in Europe, but in Germany Lincoln doesn´t start before late January.
    And while i didn´t saw Spielbergs last Films, i will sure watch this one.
    It will be interesting to see the reactions on two complete different Movies about Slavery(Lincoln, Django Unchained)
    starting here on the same time.

  29. I also think it’s still in limited release in the US.

  30. Does anyone else find this biopic pictures completely non intriguing? I really have no desire to see Lincoln, J Edgar, W, or whatever. I think the reason no one is talking about this one here is there is really nothing to say. Lincoln did this, Lincoln did that, Daniel Day Lewis wins the oscar, the end. I find fictional characters more interesting than real ones apparently.

  31. ThomasCrown442 – the strength of DDL’s acting is what sets this one apart and makes it worth watching

  32. “The Last Mohican is burning, man!”

  33. Thomas — this one wisely isn’t a “Biopic” in the same way movies like WALK THE LINE or RAY are, where they try to tell the whole life story of someone. It’s a very specific, discreet moment in Lincoln’s story, and is much more interesting for it. In fact, I’d say the plot of the movie is more about the passing the 13th Amendment than it is about Lincoln’s life. It has almost an underdog sports movie kind of vibe to it, a lot of prep leading to the big confrontation. See it, you’ll like it. Very entertaining.

  34. The Original... Paul

    November 17th, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Griff – the reason I’m not discussing it is that I’ve never heard of it. Also it’s a historical biopic that’s coming out during Oscar season, it’s directed by Steven Spielberg (and yes, unfortunately that does raise huge red flags in my mind – some of my favorite films are Spielberg, but they’re also all at least fifteen years old), it’s not been released or trailered in the UK anywhere that I know of, etc. I like to think I have at least SOME sense of when Vern and I are going to disagree violently over our subjective enjoyment of a film; and I think this is pretty much guaranteed to be one of those cases. I mean, even the positive review makes me think I’d hate it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you guys enjoyed this one. But the linking of “Spielberg” and “Historical Drama” ring huge red flags in my mind. (And that’s coming from somebody who thought Schindler’s List was at least very close to being a masterpiece.) I mean, everybody outside of the UK said “Munich” was a freaking masterpiece, and while it may very well have been in terms of acting and direction, I hated that film viscerally. So… yeah. If it ever gets any kind of publicity or an actual release over here, I would probably still give it a very wide berth indeed. Sorry.

  35. If we’re debating the politics, in a way I’m reminded reading Conrad Black’s book on FDR and his kabuki dance regarding WW2 in ’38 through ’40, getting “drafted” for a 3rd term by the Democrats, and always delicate inbetween privately helping the Allies in every which way he could, including some crazy illegal-sounding shit* he got away with, and publically still “neutral” because of the powerful (retarded) Isolationist lobby in America. (Likewise FDR more or less had to table serious black civil rights legislation because he needed the domestic industrialists and business lobby, many from the South, to get the American war machine ready for Hitler. Allegedly Black claims FDR in his last term, if he had lived it out, would’ve tried to tackle civil rights post-war.)

    Black also argued, and it’s convincing, that because of FDR’s BS political gaming and underhanding dealings to more or less get America into WW2, he may very well have saved Western Civilization in Europe from Hitler, if at the least for giving a lifeline (especially in manufacturing arms, as given by Land-Lease Act) to the Brits and Soviets to keep on fighting and not accept ceasefire offers (as Soviets seriously contemplated in late ’41.)

    People don’t realize that by Pearl Harbor, FDR had slowly but steadidly increased a U.S. Navy enforced “Neutrality Zone” in the Atlantic Ocean up to the shores of Scotland by December ’41. With public support, by fall ’41 he was able to more or less give the Navy aim-to-kill orders on Nazi ships/subs, which means we were already at undeclared war. All while FDR was still waving the flag of neutrality. (Though to give Hitler credit despite his lunatic reputation, he saw through FDR’s game and told his Navy to avoid any confrontations with the Americans, not to repeat how the U.S. got into the first World War. Too bad he didn’t bother to establish close ties with his Japanese “allies,” for he found out about Pearl Harbor along with everybody else. Then again he didn’t consult them about his plan to invade Russia, so I guess he should’ve expected it.)

    Anyway I doubt most will doubt or have qualms with what FDR did because hey, he was trying to stop the Nazis. In fact I think most of us instead will (rightfully) shit on him for Interning those Japanese-American citizens, mostly (as Black claims) FDR domestically overreacting in part to the claims that his administration was asleep on the wheel regarding Pearl Harbor being unprepared for an attack.

    *=My favorite? Having military pilots routinely get “lost” in Canada, which the plane lands and said plane get “confiscated” wink wink by the Canadian authorities, who would then ship the plane over to the UK.

  36. RRA – Yeah, again, it seems like the best lesson to take away from this sort of thing is “do what it takes to get the job done, just be damn sure you’re on the right side of history.”

  37. Way off topic, but in general the surge in popular favor of gay rights might just be the most pleasant surprise. I mean jesus look at how its grown leaps and bounds in the last 10…shit the last 5 years in general. Hell nearly a decade ago I remember when gay marriage was a minority position, not just in the country, but inside the Democratic Party too. I remember one episode of WEST WING back in the day, when Aaron Sorkin in the late 90s (early 2000s?) portrayed gay rights, as righteous and noble as it was, as sorta the albatross for the Democrats that President Martin Sheen reluctantly has to not get too close to because of the politics of the time. Now we have a President who’s for SSM and won re-election without the issue apparently costing him votes. Times have indeed changed.

    A recent PEW survey found in particular, American black support for it now 51%, nearly double then it was just 3 years ago. (With Latinos, its now 59%.)

    You know the funny thing is, I wonder if the GOP realize that (arguably) they could cut the wind out of gay rights sails by repealing DOMA?

  38. This movie was sold out when I tried to see it this weekend. As far as the historical Lincoln goes, he definitely lucked out a little. The man was absolutely willing to allow slavery if it kept the Southern states from seceding. Also, the fact that he revoked habeas corpus unilaterally is pretty sketchy to say the least. If history were just a little different, if events unfurled in an alternative manner, then Abraham Lincoln could very well have become one of history’s monsters rather than its heroes. Sometimes I think he gets too much credit for freeing the slaves. It was really all of those abolitionists who fought the good fight for decades and pushed Lincoln into making the right choices that should get the credit. But I tend to believe that history is more often made from the ground up.

  39. So I did my civic duty and saw LINCOLN finally. I thought it was good but still felt like a typical Hollywood screenplay making sure to cram in every piece of information. The scene where Mary Todd brings up Thaddeus Stevens’ critiques on her spending felt particularly irrelevant and blatant.

    Great performances, particularly Tommy Lee Jones in what must be the definitive “Tommy Lee Jones as a dick” role. Some lovely moments, like Jones in bed at the end, the opening with Lincoln and the black soldiers, Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens.

    Still felt like homework though, just good, worthwhile homework.

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