Like most movie-goers, I was in eager anticipation when I first heard the news of Steven Spielberg’s new Lincoln movie. After the trailer was released, however, my enthusiasm was significantly dampened. That initial glimpse into the movie looked dull. But then after the movie came out, I read reactions from folks who saw the movie before I did. To a man, they all indicated that the movie was much better than the trailer. So my expectations for this movie went from high to low then back to high again. I was eager for the good reports I’d heard to be right.
Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I think I’m a little conflicted about it. In fact my feelings are pretty close to Thomas McKenzie’s (see his review below). I thought the scenes of Congressional debates and backroom dealing were riveting—a bit like courtroom dramas. There were other stretches, however, that did in fact turn out to be a little bit boring in my view. The darkened hues of the film matched the pace. It seemed as if at any moment one of the characters might exclaim, “Can somebody turn on a light in here?”
There’s more that could be said by way of evaluation, but I’m not going to write a full review here. I’ll leave that to others. But I would like to comment briefly on one oddball moment in the movie—a line delivered by Daniel Day Lewis.
Daniel Day Lewis gives a stunning performance and depicts Lincoln as a kind of humble, folksy, wise, understated leader. Lincoln comes across always as the cooler head that prevailed—except in one particular scene (which also happens to appear in the trailer). Sitting at a table with his advisors surrounding him, he bellows out the reason that he would get his way on the 13th amendment: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”
I thought the same thing after seeing the line in the movie that I did when I first saw it in the trailer. The line was delivered in an ugly, arrogant tone. It was like Daniel Day Lewis was channeling one of Jeb Bartlett’s fiery take-downs of his fictional Republican opponents. The line was completely out of step with the character that had been developed for Lincoln throughout the rest of the movie. From a dramatic perspective, the line seemed completely out place. I wondered if it was out of place from a historical perspective as well? The line comes across as the ranting of a megalomaniac—the diction of a dictator, not of an American statesman and president. If someone had attributed such words to Julius Caesar or Napolean, no problem. But Abraham Lincoln?
It turns out that I’m not the only one who had historical questions about that particular line. In a fact-checking piece for The Atlantic, Joshua Zeitz says that the historical Lincoln is “unlikely” to have uttered those exact words. He writes:
Lincoln did, in fact, tell Congressman James Alley, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” Or at least that’s how Alley remembered it, 23 years after the fact. If those were Lincoln’s precise words (unlikely, as they don’t sound like him; he was a man who liked things done, not said), the president probably didn’t bellow them across the room, but rather, slyly conveyed his determination to use patronage as a blunt legislative instrument. But a movie is a movie, not a scholarly monograph, and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s use of the line does no real violence to Lincoln’s larger position.
For me, it was an oddball moment in the movie. As it turns out, it’s probably an oddball recollection in history as well.
Even though I’m ambivalent about the movie, I won’t tell you not to see it. But I won’t tell you that you must see it either.