Sunday, February 9, 2014

How Spielberg's Lincoln Could Have Been So Much Better

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was, without a doubt, a wonderful film. The acting of Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones was amazing, and the portrayal of Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis will certainly be remembered as perhaps the greatest cinematic portrayal of a historical figure by an actor (perhaps its only rival being George C. Scott's portrayal of Patton). The screenplay of Tony Kushner was great, the music of John Williams as epic as one would expect from him, and the whole production really did outstanding work.

Still, the movie could have been so much better.

I remember how excited I was upon learning that Spielberg, without question America's greatest director, was going to make a movie from the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. When I learned it was going to cover only the period of time involving the passage of the 13th Amendment, I became a bit skeptical. After I finally saw the film, as great as it was and as much as I enjoyed it, I felt that my skepticism had been justified.

For me, it would have been far better for Spielberg to have made a film about Lincoln during the late summer of 1862 rather than early 1865. This timeframe would certainly have allowed for much more dramatic intensity.  In mid-1862, unlike early 1865, the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt.  The Confederacy had beaten back Union efforts to capture Richmond and embarked on grand counter offensives in Maryland, Kentucky, and northern Mississippi. The possibility of Britain and France extending diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy was very real. Most importantly, it was during this time that Lincoln made the momentous decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

By early 1865, the outcome of the war was not in doubt. The fall of Atlanta and the reelection of Lincoln in the 1864 election had driven the final nail into the heart of the Confederacy. The knowledge that the war was virtually over deprived Lincoln from much of the dramatic tension it might otherwise have had. Had it been set in 1862, scenes of Lincoln in the telegraph room receiving news of Union defeats at the hands of the Confederacy would have given Daniel Day-Lewis much more to work with.

Similarly, the Emancipation Proclamation was much more touch-and-go in the summer of 1862 than was the 13th Amendment in early 1865. For all the drama depicted in the movie, it was obvious to all observers after the 1864 elections that the 13th Amendment was going to pass. This was certainly not the case with the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew it would be tremendously unpopular in many areas of the North, would cost him badly needed support in the critical border states, would help the Democrats in the 1862 mid-term elections, and might well solidify Confederate resistance to the Union. There were fears that it would trigger a anarchy and an out-and-out race war in the South. Simply put, the decision on whether or not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation tormented Lincoln, while the decision to push for the 13th Amendment was just a logical next step in the abolition of slavery, which by then had been underway for years.

Put all that together and I think a fair case can be made that Lincoln would have been a far better movie had it been set in the summer and fall of 1862 than in early 1865.

Of course, it's rather silly of me to complain about this. Lincoln is a fabulous film and we should be ever thankful to Steven Spielberg and his team for making it.

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