Sunday, December 9, 2012

On Spielberg's LINCOLN - Part 1

A Sort of Review

I have a long history of being disappointed by history movies.

My biggest disappointment was The Patriot.  Hollywood has given us many wonderful WWII movies and a few Civil War classics.  We've had great movies about WWI and even one damn good flick about The French and Indian War (starring this guy named Daniel Day-Lewis).

But for reasons I can't fathom a century of film making hasn't given us a single great movie about the Revolutionary War.  Indeed, Hollywood hasn't even tried very hard - there have been fewer movies about the American Revolution since 1900 than there have been vampire movies since 2000.  (I'm not kidding; look it up.)

So years ago, when I heard the screenwriter of Saving Private Ryan was hooking up with Braveheart himself to do a flick based on Revolutionary hero Francis Merion, my hopes soared.  Alas, while the film has its moments (the Yorktown scene is worth ten minutes of your time) its absurd demonization of British troops and the overacting of its star ruined it.

For several years now, I've been engaged in a similar experience of cinema anticipation.  When I first heard Steven Spielberg was planning a film about Abraham Lincoln, an historical obsession of mine, Liam Neeson was rumored to play the 16th President.  I couldn't quite see the rugged Irishman in the role but figured, hey, this Spielberg fellow might be better at this sort of thing than I am.

I lost track of the project until that magical day when the first press photo for the movie was released.  And my first reaction upon seeing that picture was - Whoa.

Another inhabitant of the Emerald Isle had the part, and the likeness was staggering.  At this point, I went into history geek fanboy overdrive.  When Tony Kushner was announced as screenwriter I wrinkled my brow - not much in his oeuvre suggested him as an obvious choice.   But who cares - look at that picture!

I tracked the casting with the sort of attention one usually reserves for their financial portfolio.  David Straitharn as Secretary of State William Seward?  Hmm, I can see that.  Kelly Leak from the Bad News Bears as Alexander Stevens?  Inspired.  The Sheriff from My Cousin Vinny as Edwin Stanton?!*

*  watching the film, I was surprised at how many actors from my favorite television shows appeared: Arnold Rothstein from Boardwalk Empire, Boyd Crowder from Justified, Sol Star from Deadwood

And then finally, last night, joined by the Rock Star, I saw the film.  I'm no movie critic, and you don't need another amateur telling you Day-Lewis is brilliant (he is) or that the period details are perfect (they are) or that the movie's surprisingly funny (it is).

But I'm a bit of a Lincoln buff, and am particularly interested in the ways he's depicted in fictional settings - and yes, all history movies are essentially historical fiction.   I found myself keenly interested in the many choices the filmmakers had to make - what to show, what to skip, what to invent - and found myself alternately applauding, criticizing, and puzzling over them.

I'll save that for Part 2.  But a word before I go there:

When I'm disappointed by a history flick, it's not because I'm a stickler for the facts.  My favorite history film is Edward Zwick's Glory, which is riddled with errors, inventions, and omissions.  Historian James McPherson in a brilliant review in The New Republic points all of them out, but concludes that Glory "is the most powerful movie about that war ever made."  McPherson argues that a movie is historical fiction and has a power to present the Truth accurately, even if it must change some facts to get there.

The big invention is presenting the 54th Massachusetts as consisting of mostly former slaves while in fact it was mostly former freedman.  The filmmakers wanted to tell the larger story of black soldiers - who were mostly former slaves - fighting in the Civil War, and changed some facts about the 54th to do that.

So, Part 2 won't be a collection of gotchas, or a chance to show off my Lincoln knowledge (ok, it might be a little of that).  More of an honest wondering over the difficult choices involved in packing four of history's most momentous months into a 2 hour movie.  

Go to Part 2

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