Spielberg’s Lincoln: A Dissenting Vote

- November 16th, 2012

Day-Lewis-Lincoln

Look, I realize Lincoln opened a week ago, so it’s ancient news to most people and nobody gives two hoots about it one way or another any more.

But I finally got around to seeing it Thursday and I was shocked by how boring I found it.

I felt more than a little betrayed by the plethora of gilded reviews (some written by friends of mine, dare I say) praising Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as if it was the greatest thing since, well, the 13th Amendment. I may have missed it, but nowhere did I see a review warning me that I might find Lincoln B-O-R-I-N-G.

And how would I be expected to suspect that on my own? Apart from the last Indiana Jones movie, when did Steven Spielberg ever make a boring movie? And Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the greatest and most exciting actors of his generation — boring? Impossible.

And, in fact, it was impossible. Because Day-Lewis was very good as Lincoln. And the supporting cast — especially Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader — was excellent. But still, despite those interesting performances, the move itself left me cold, dissatisfied, in an argumentative mood — and bored. If I wanted to sit through a church service, I would have gone to a church, not a movie theatre.

I’ll tell you how bored I was: As the movie neared its supposed climax, I cared far more about how sore my bored, aching ass was than I did about what was happening on the screen.

My boredom and dissatisfaction didn’t stem from the subject matter: I’m a huge history buff and love prowling through the corridors of past power struggles. I’m fascinated by Abe Lincoln, by the soiled, mottled goodness of the man, by his complexity. And what could be a bigger, better canvas to splash with cinematic paint than the knuckle-biting, skull-duggered, gutting fight to get the 13th Amendment through a savagely divided, war-weary, vengeful and frightened House of Representatives?

I didn’t even mind that Spielberg made the conscious decision to stay away from actual Civil War battle scenes (apart from the one opening sequence meant to convey the reality, the brutality, the horror of real war). I don’t actually like most blockbuster action movies and simply wouldn’t waste my money going to see something like The Avengers.

But by choosing to eschew the dramatic and vitally important military aspects of events during those first four months of 1865, Spielberg was committing to make a political thriller as well as a biopic of a tainted saint. In that, he failed. Miserably, I would say.

The thrill factor should not have been diminished by the fact that the various outcomes were known — the 13th Amendment passed, Lincoln was assassinated, Reconstruction was a failure without Lincoln’s guiding presence (as it might well have been even if Lincoln had survived).

One of the really terrific political-thriller movies is All the President’s Men about the uncovering of the Watergate dirty tricks/coverup scandal by reporters Woodward and Bernstein. It came out in 1976, when most of the outcomes were not only known but still fresh in the minds of the movie-going public (Richard Nixon had resigned just the previous year). Yet it was an exciting, nerve-wracking, immensely satisfying and stimulating piece of movie-making.

Another film Spielberg might have looked to for inspiration was 1988′s Mississippi Burning, a bookend to Lincoln, set in the cauldron of the 1960s civil rights movement in the deep south. Again, based on real events, again a story in which the real outcomes were quite well known, and again an exciting and emotionally involving movie.

So it can be done. Steven Spielberg just didn’t do it in Lincoln. And nobody gave me any warning it might be boring. But now you’re warned.

If you haven’t seen Lincoln yet and you decide to go, you can’t say nobody told you if the climax of the film finds you wondering which ass cheek aches the most, left or right.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Here’s a Nosey Parker blog post I wrote about Abe Lincoln’s beard back in April 2011 on the  150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War.

With this week marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, I´m going to take a few excursions down that road in coming days because what we now think happened back then is not necessarily what really happened.

Just for starters, let´s take a look at Civil War President Abraham Lincoln´s beard.

Here´s the standard image we have of Lincoln, a portrait made by photographer Alexander Gardner in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8, 1863.

456px-Abraham_Lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait

Lincoln is showing the wear and worry of more than two years of civil war at this point, but this is the historic  Lincoln we know, chin whiskers and all.

But this is not the Abraham Lincoln that the upstart Republican Party nominated for president in May 1860 and that the American people (well, 40% of the ones who were able to vote) elected president in November 1860.

That Lincoln was a very different man. Here´s a picture of the guy who was elected president.

Abraham-Lincoln-Helser-Portrait-1860

Quite a difference, eh?

As a friend of mine says, the clean-shaven Lincoln looks “fragile.” I think he looks quite handsome without the beard, in a gawky, stringbean sort of way.  And there´s a sensual quality to the face you don´t see with the chin whiskers.

Maybe this is the photo Marilyn Monroe was thinking of when she called Abe Lincoln “the sexiest man in American history.”

That particular portrait was made by Chicago photographer Alexander Hesler on June 3, 1860, at Lincoln´s home in Springfield, Illinois, shortly after Lincoln won the Republication presidential nomination over such frontrunners and party stalwarts as William Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Simon Cameron — all rivals that Lincoln would put in his first cabinet a few months later.

 

 

And here´s a slightly earlier photo, one that Lincoln himself said helped make him president.

lincoln_1861_portra_748814s

The photo was taken on Feb. 27, 1860, in New York City on the day that Lincoln made a speech that propelled him from regional Illinois politician to the front ranks of the national Republican Party and the anti-slavery movement in general.

It was a speech months in the planning and it was delivered to a crowd of about 1,500 politically influential New Yorkers at the Cooper Institute. Lincoln wowed the house with a brilliant, rivetting analysis of how the framers of the U.S. Constitution clearly intended that Congress should regulate — and eventually eliminate — slavery in the United States of America.

Lincoln, you see, was a “moderate” Republican not a “radical” (in 1850s terms), in that he was not calling for the immediate abolition of slavery where it already existed: What everyone was after — North and South, slavers and abolitionists, that is (the 4 million Americans held in slavery weren´t asked their opinions) – was control of the vast, sparsely settled (so far) territories west of the Mississippi that the U.S. had gained as prizes in the Mexican-American War of 1848.

The South wanted some, if not all, of the territories to enter the union as slave states. Northern abolitionists were determined that all the territories would gain statehood without the taint of slavery. In between, compromisers kept putting forward plans to allow a nibble of slavery here and a slice of freedom there.

Lincoln was determined that slavery would not be extended to any of the territories and that the central government had the right and responsibility to enforce that. He hoped to see the end of slavery in the whole country some day, but believed it would happen slowly, (relatively) peacably and by a process of attrition.

This was a position hotly disputed by the slave states and a bone of contention for more than a decade between the South and the North.  Throughout the 1850s, compromise after compromise had held the antagonists together, but both sides clearly felt the time for appeasement was over and a real solution had to be found. After the Cooper Institute speech — and its widespread coverage in the many New York daily newspapers of the time — Northern abolitionists felt they had in Lincoln  a true champion with guts, brains and public appeal.

As for the photo, Lincoln was then staying at the Astor House hotel on Broadway. On the afternoon before his evening speech, Lincoln had gone for a walk down Broadway with a couple of friends. At the corner of Broadway and Bleeker Street, Lincoln saw the studio of photographer Mathew Brady and — really on a whim — decided to stop in and have his picture taken.

That´s the photo you see above, one that was widely distributed during the following election.

Brady later admitted he did a little retouching of the photo, smoothing out Abe´s wayward hair and “subtly refin(ing) his features.”

But it did the trick, getting Lincoln´s image out there at a time when presidential candidates did virtually no public campaigning themselves and relied on local and regional allies to carry their message to the voters.

“Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president,” Lincoln was later quoted as saying.

Here´s another, rarely seen photo of Lincoln (possibly by Preston Butler) made in May 1860, just after Lincoln clinched the Republican nomination.

Lincoln

So why, I ask you, why did a guy who had lived the entire 51 years (so far) of his life without a beard, who had won the nomination of the Republican Party without a beard, and who had won election as president of the United States of America without a beard, why did he suddenly decide to grow a beard in the couple of months between the election on Nov. 6, 1860, and his inaugration on March 4, 1861?

According to Lincoln himself, it was because of a little girl.

On Oct. 15, 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell of Westfield, N.Y. (about 100 km south of Buffalo on Lake Erie), wrote to Lincoln in Springfield:

“Dear Sir

My father has just (come) home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin´s (Lincoln´s vice-presidential running mate). I am a little girl only 11 years old but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont (sic) think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am (sic) if so give them my love and tell her to write me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you (sic) you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to (sic) but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can (sic) I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty (sic) I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is  just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct (it) to Grace Bedell Westfield Chautauque County New York.

I must not write any more answer this letter right off   Good bye.

Grace Bedell”

To which Lincoln responded on Oct. 19, 1860 (and don´t forget this is less than three weeks before the national election that could make him president of the United States):

“My dear little Miss

Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received — I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters — I have three sons — one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age — They, with their mother, constitute my whole family — As to the whiskers, having never worn any,  do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it  now?

Your very sincere well wisher

A. Lincoln”

Friends and poltical supporters had  for years urged Lincoln to grow a beard to hide his long neck and prominent adam´s apple. In his reply to Grace Bedell, Lincoln seemed once again to be rejecting the notion of growing a beard.

But Grace´s appeal hit a nerve somehow and Lincoln began, soon after the election, growing his famous chin whiskers.

How do we know it was Grace that made the difference? Because Lincoln said so — in front of thousands of people.

Although Lincoln did not actively campaign in the runup to the Nov. 6, 1860 election, he made what was essentially a campaign tour in the weeks before his inauguration on March 4, 1861.

Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois, on Feb. 11 in a special train that carried him and a party of supporters east to Washington throughout the northern states that had elected him president.

At every stop for fuel and water, Lincoln was mobbed by wellwishers and gave a rousing speech in which he promised to hold the union together while stopping the spread of slavery. By this time South Carolina and six other states had seceded from the union since Lincoln had won the election — and they had seceded mainly because Lincoln´s victory was seen by many in the South as the last straw in the more-populous North´s attempt to dominate the South and force radical changes to its slave economy and culture.

As the train headed for Buffalo, N.Y. (where Lincoln was almost crushed to death when a crowd of 20,000 supporters went crazy and overwhelmed his small military escort), the president-elect made sure the train would stop at the small Lake Erie town of Westfield on Feb. 19, a week after leaving Springfield.

Here´s what the reporter for the New York World had to say in that evening´s newspaper:

“At Westfield an interesting incident occurred. Shortly after his nomination Mr. Lincoln had received from that place a letter from a little girl, who urged him, as a means of improving his personal appearance, to wear whiskers. Mr. Lincoln at the time replied, stating that although he was obliged by the suggestion, he feared his habits of life were too fixed to admit of even so slight a change as that which letting his beard grow involved. To-day, on reaching the place, he related the incident and said that if that young lady was in the crowd he should be glad to see her. There was a momentary commotion, in the midst of which an old man, struggling through the crowd, approached, leading his daughter, a girl of apparently twelve or thirteen years of age, whom he introduced to Mr. Lincoln as his Westfield correspondent. Mr. Lincoln stooped down and kissed the child, and talked with her for some minutes. Her advice had not been thrown away upon the rugged chieftain. A beard of several months´growth covers (perhaps adorns) the lower part of his face. The young girl´s peachy cheek must have been tickled with a stiff whisker, for the growth of which she was herself responsible.”

And that´s how Abe Lincoln got his Abe Lincoln beard.

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4 comments

  1. K Wardwell says:

    I am tempted to be sarcastic and point out that there was an earlier Lincoln movie a few months ago where Lincoln slays vampires that might have been more to your expectations for Hollywood action and/or suspense. But that would be a cheap shot.

    I suppose a more constructive comment would be that maybe you’re right that it is not an action movie, but I don’t believe that it has to be. It was so much more than a documentary as it portrayed the atmosphere and challenges in as realistic a manner ever presented as far as I can tell in which Lincoln did what no other American politician could in the previous 40 years or so.

    I don’t think it is realistic to judge an incredible piece of American history primarily on whether it is presented in a manner that is suspenseful to a 2012 American audience that it could be argued are often too jaded, impatient, or not sufficiently knowledgeable to truly appreciate what others went through during events in their time period. To suggest otherwise seems like it would be as anachronistic as one of the video games (Assassin’s Creed III) currently being advertised that uses Ninja type warriors during the American Revolutionary War.

  2. alan.parker says:

    To K Wardwell,
    I’m taking shots at Lincoln, so I guess it’s okay for you to take shots at me: But don’t misrepresent what I said. If you go back to the blog post, you’ll see that I said it was fine that Spielberg purposefully chose to NOT make it an action/war film — but by doing so he was making a pact with the audience that he would make the politicial/social doings interesting. He didn’t, in my opinion … which is downright weird for a guy who is known for using every cinematic twist and trick to hold and entice the audience. I’m pissed off at Spielberg for the same reasons that I’m pissed off at every history teacher who somehow manages to make history boring. Shouldn’t happen. No defence. Big FAIL. By the way, I saw the Lincoln vampire movie — even more boring than Spielberg’s Lincoln in its own over-the-top way. If anyone was going to get Lincoln right it was Spielberg with DD-L in the lead.
    Alan

  3. Guy Laurin says:

    I went to the first screening of «LINCOLN», and came out impressed. The only major scene missing from Speilberg’s film, is Lincoln assasination…

  4. K Wardwell says:

    Alan,

    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. i personally found it fascinating in the realm of human nature how a country bumpkin who continuously told jokes and spun stories from his past, e.g. when Stanton stomps out of the telegraph office if Lincoln is going to tell yet another one of his stories, was able to manipulate and utilize the strongest of his political party to serve his will when each of them (Stanton, Chase and Seward all knew that they should have been the one to be president) yet ultimately come around to do their part to help Lincoln accomplish what no other American was able to do the previous 40 years — end slavery while holding the union together.

    To do what no other person up to that time could have done, and do it in a way that ultimately navigated the country in a way that has stood the test of time and is used continuously as an example and guide for all succeeding presidents.

    Yes, it lacked physical action. But in the realm of dealing with human nature, doing the impossible time and time again was nothing short of amazing, and to see this one small episode was fascinating — especially when it was done in a way that appeared to be incredibly realisitc, and resisted time and time again all sorts of temptations for Hollywood to glorify, romantize, or exaggerate these events. Instead Spielberg showed it in what appeared to be pretty realistically, mud, ridiculous hair, etc.

    But I understand that some would have preferred something more exciting such as perhaps how the fall of Vicksburg eventually lead to Lincoln’s re-election, etc.

    I appreciate your thoughts. I disagree. And I suspect my interest in the political games of which Lincoln was master simply won’t be of interest to some. As one of my friends complained as we walked out of the theater, he didn’t realize he was going to have to sit through a history lesson.

    Kim

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