I have yet to see Lincoln (the Spousal Unit & I saw five movies in theatres during 2012, and 43% to 100% of them were cartoons*), but we’re finally seeing reviews that go beyond the anodyne. Roy Edroso at alicublog takes a professional interest:
… If you thought Tony Kushner’s involvement might make Lincoln an elevating experience, well, it certainly elevates the tone. Kushner’s a serious writer, but so was William Faulkner and I don’t see the Library of America publishing a handsome edition of the screenplays he worked on….
The plot centers on the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, in the course of which Lincoln is revealed to be a consummate wheeler-dealer — but that has always been part of the Lincoln legend; as Tad Gallagher observes about Ford’s Lincoln, he’s “not above a bit of dissimulation, cheating or force to get things done.” Maybe this is part of why we love Lincoln — he shows that even when your ambition is a little engine that knows no rest, you may still do great things that can justify it. That Lincoln’s ambition was turned toward ending slavery makes it easier to believe; you probably couldn’t get the same kind of drama out of a battle to pass the Revenue Act.
Munich was about idealists who wade in blood but somehow keep their souls clean, and Lincoln is about a man to whom the muck of politics does not adhere even as he clambers through the filthy roominghouse attic of his political fixers. Abe is practically magical; at one point he suddenly appears in Edwin Stanton’s war room, unobserved till he breaks his silence. Several times (or maybe it just seemed like several times) his cabinet is near rebellion, and Abe defuses the situation with some cornpone humor (which, frankly, must be magic as the jokes aren’t that good). Much of William Seward’s dialogue could be boiled down to “Ooooh, you’ll be the death of me yet, Abraham Lincoln!” Lincoln confounds friend and enemy alike, and finally gets the big job done…
Thomas Frank at Harpers (subscription required, but at $17 for a year’s worth of good reading, well worth it) is more explicit, and more angry, at Kushner’s/Spielberg’s political gloss:
…[T]he movie Spielberg actually made goes well beyond justifying compromise: it justifies corruption. Lincoln and his men, as they are depicted here, do not merely buttonhole and persuade and deceive. They buy votes outright with promises of patronage jobs and (it is strongly suggested) cash bribes. The noblest law imaginable is put over by the most degraded means. As the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, is credited with having said after the amendment was finally approved: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens. The great lesson we are meant to take from his career is that idealists must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective. Lobbyists, on the other hand, are a class of people the movie seems at pains to rehabilitate. Spielberg gives us a raffish trio of such men, hired for the occasion by William Seward, and they get the legislative job done by throwing money around, buying off loose votes — the usual. They huddle with the holy Lincoln himself to talk strategy, and in a climactic scene, Spielberg shows us that a worldly lobbyist can work wonders while a public servant dithers about legalisms. Happy banjo-and-fiddle music starts up whenever they are on-screen — drinking, playing cards, dangling lucrative job offers — because, after all, who doesn’t love a boodle-bundling gang of scamps?
To repeat: Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed. This is, in short, what Lincoln is about. All right, then: what does it mean to make such a movie in the year 2012?
Tony Kushner, the celebrated playwright who wrote the script for Lincoln, told NPR that the project had allowed him “to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens.” As in 1865, he said, there is enormous potential now for “rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country.” There are “obstacles” to this project, however. And among the most notable ones, in Kushner’s view, are those damn liberals — or more specifically, “an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.”
Many observers have described Lincoln as a gloss on President Obama’s struggles with the Republican House of Representatives. The film’s real message, however, is both grander than this and much smaller. It is, in fact, a two-and-a-half-hour étude on yet another favorite cliché: the impracticality of reform….
Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already — Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad — and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes…
*Brave, Rise of the Guardians, Argo, John Carter of Mars, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Anybody here seen the movie, and would like to share their opinions?