Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Review of Lincoln film


As an amateur civil war historian (my Master's thesis was largely on an aspect of the American civil war), I was curious to see how this Hollywood film was going to play out. I think this country has turned the romantic ideal of Lincoln into myth, and has not seriously engaged all his political maneuverings, idiosyncrasies, and suppression of constitutional rights that have been fairly well documented by historians.

He did some great things, do not get me wrong, but he also had a dark side that most people don't want to talk about. Combined with that, modern American culture (Hollywood in particular) loves to denigrate and stereotype the South as redneck racists and whatnot. So, I was curious to see how fair and balanced historically this film would be. There have been many numerous historical critiques of this film. There are well documented reviews out there that some scenes of this film are sheer fiction. I won't go into that. You can read other reviews on that on your own. I understand the need for a certain level of creative license for the sake of telling the story in a film.

I found the film interesting. The portrayal of Lincoln as a day to day human being, particularly his family life with a wife who had all sorts of behavior and mental problems is worth watching. I actually did not think it was Oscar worthy, though. We often want to view Lincoln as this knight in shining armor or something, and he was a man like any other man. In fact, I am convinced he could never be elected President today, if for no other reason than the way he talked and walked. He was not photogenic; he even admitted as such. He gangling and awkward. The film touches on that a bit.

I don't think they got his accent right in the film though. He would have had a very crude, Kentucky backwoods accent that was often described as "nasally" and high pitched. He talked like a redneck in today's terminology by most accounts. General McClellan, a high bred Philadelphia aristocrat, in particular could not stand the man (read this book for more on that).McClellan thought Lincoln was an uncouth, backwater hick. Daniel Day Lewis portrays Lincoln as a much more regal, deep voice, which I found odd, but that's just casting. On the flip side, though, I did appreciate the way Day Lewis tried to portray Lincoln as a storyteller that would constantly tell these yarns and off color anecdotes that often drove people crazy about him. That is accurate.

I thought the bizarre scene where the Radical Thaddeus Stevens goes home with the copy of the vote to pass the 13th Amendment and gets in bed with his African mistress was completely bizarre. She was actually half Irish and had never been a slave. And she was just his house keeper, and the exact nature of their relationship is unknown, though many neighbors did see her as his common law wife. That whole scene I found unnecessary.

I was also somewhat unhappy that the casting could not find a Southerner (what few there were actually in the film) with an actual Southern accent. They did have a nice tip of the hat to Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox courthouse, but that is really about the extent to which the film went to portray Southerners as anything other than rabid slave owning rednecks who got what they got. This is typical of Hollywood. But this film is more about the goings on in the North, so that is just a side irritation.

Again, it is worth watching, though I think it ran a bit long (almost 2.5 hours). It got bogged down a bit in a few places and could have used a bit more editing. It had the feel in parts like they were recycling the script from the Amazing Grace movie about William Wilberforce's crusade to get slavery outlawed in the British Empire, it just took place in Congress and involved a Constitutional amendment. I just felt there were some scenes that could have been cut both for historical accuracy and that were not really in keeping with the actual plot.That part kind of went far afield.

Personally, if I had been directing a film about Lincoln, I would have have written the script around the 1864 Presidential election. I think that would have been a much more effective way of showing the tensions and intrigue that existed between The Republicans (Radical and regular) and the Democrats (Pro-South Copperheads and Pro-war) that existed in the North. Most people don't realize how easily Lincoln could very easily have lost that 2nd election. As late as early September, everybody, even Lincoln himself, was preparing for a major loss. His former General whom he had sacked, George B McClellan, was nominated by the Democrats, and being a war hero that was well thought of, most places were predicting a major victory for McClellan as the war was dragging on and no end seemed in sight.

This election was a classic example of a party snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. To appease the Pro-peace wing, The Democratic convention passed a platform plank at the last moment that called the war a complete failure. You can imagine with a former General running as the major candidate, that was just a P.R. disaster because it managed to alienate both wings of the party. McClellan, very popular with the troops and veterans, ended up losing the crucial veteran vote by a 7 to 3 margin. Then in late 1864, the Union actually had a series of victories that made winning the war appear to be on the horizon. With those two factors, Lincoln won in an electoral landslide, though in the popular vote, it was actually quite close.

Most people don't realize that with a coherent platform and a better organized campaign, McClellan could very easily have defeated Lincoln in the 1864 election, in what would have become a change of executive power in a war time Republic for the first time in history. If Lincoln had been repudiated, the Democrats might very well have sued for peace with the South if they had had control of the White House. Certainly, Reconstruction would have been different. McClellan was appalled by the Emancipation Proclamation because he thought Lincoln was politicizing the slavery issue for political gain as a war gimmick.

McClellan thought the war was to put down rebellion and preserve the Union straight up. While he didn't like slavery, he just wanted to leave slavery alone because he thought that complicated matters of attaining the goal of keeping the Union whole. He was also an Engineer by trade and not a politician, so Reconstruction (had the Government not sued for peace and allowed the Confederates to go their way) would have been much more pragmatic toward the South, which is not what ultimately happened.

Personally, I think that would have made a much better script that what Lincoln the movie came up with, but that's just me.

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