NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Steven Spielberg has already made his epic to The Greatest Generation. Saving Private Ryan is among the best World War II movies of all time. But that’s a crowded area of our national cinematography. This film stands out because of its storytelling. We know how the war ended. We’re told the story of James Ryan amid that backdrop.
The life of Abraham Lincoln has also been documented in the movies – but not as often, and not as well. Spielberg is trying for another epic. He falls short. But there is still much for us to learn.
The film has two major shortcomings. First and foremost, it isn’t about Lincoln at all. It’s about the debate over the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. Spielberg has much to say about it – it’s still the moral stain upon our nation, and the debate over how it ended is a worthy topic. But this narrow treatment drowns out all other parts of Lincoln’s life in this film. Stories and brief dialogue fill in the rest. If you’re not good with history, you only get a glimpse of Mary Lincoln’s poor mental state, her lavish spending at the White House, the War Cabinet stacked with political opponents, the draft riots up north, and Lincoln’s rise through politics. His largely unsuccessful early political career is ignored completely.
And this film is slow. One review called it “C-Span with whiskers.” Indeed, it is. I have a good tolerance for movies that deliberately unpack their tale. With Lincoln, you wish you could pull the string that might tug the story along.
There is still much to like. This is probably the most realistic approximation ever of how Lincoln looked and spoke. That’s mostly because of a perfect-pitch performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. We’re also reminded two things about our legal process: the law, dealing with the here-and-now practicalities of governing, is slow to deal with the great moral issues of the times. And the process of making law is indeed like making sausage, even in the mid-1800s.
I also have a personal regret while watching Lincoln. I enjoy history. It was my favorite subject in high school. In college, I sought out history classes as electives whenever I could. This movie reminded me that my own knowledge is woefully incomplete, and people with less of an interest than me have an even larger blind-spot about our nation’s story. Many of the cabinet members, congressmen, and civil war generals could have their own movies to study their lives and times. And yet I’m amazed at how I didn’t really know them. The captions that flash across the screen giving us dates, places, and settings were almost like movie-goer crib notes. They constantly tapped me on the shoulder – telling me things I probably should know, but don’t.
Without that context, it’s hard to understand the words atop the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple, and in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”