When you see a movie purporting to be an historical drama, it’s vitally important that its verisimilitude is established at the outset. Director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner start this movie with an opening scene that is so contrived and so contrary to fact that the film’s credibility is forever tarnished.
After the opening battle scenes, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is sitting on a tree stump somewhere on a battlefield in early 1865. Four soldiers, two white and two black, are speaking with him (that, in itself, is enough to make one wonder; that the President of the United States would find himself alone, sitting on a tree stump, speaking with four soldiers). Suddenly all four soldiers start to recite the Gettysburg Address verbatim. Gabor Boritt, the author of The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows, claims that between 1863, when it was delivered, and 1876, the nation’s Centennial year, the Gettysburg Address was “the speech that nobody knew,” and that it had no great popularity after it was delivered or even in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination. So for Spielberg to have four soldiers adoringly recite it word for word to Lincoln himself in January of 1865, less than two years after Lincoln delivered it, is counter-factual at least, if not ridiculous.
The movie moves downhill from there. It is wordy, but the words are, as Shakespeare might have said, in accents yet unknown. Kushner candidly admits, “We know that these events occurred but we don’t know very much about what was said, so that gave me a certain amount of license and I was glad to have it.” In other words, he made it up. Unfortunately, what license he took is not credible. Nobody spoke like these people speak, especially Lincoln. It’s like he’s speaking in blank verse sometimes, or for posterity. Lincoln, in fact, was a regular guy who told lots of jokes. The jokes here look like they have halos around them.
The movie is trying to tell the story of how the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting slavery, was enacted. But in the way it’s told, the machinations all the characters go through are almost incomprehensible. This film constantly reminded me of Hamlet’s response to Polonius, when Polonius asks, “What are you reading, my lord?” Hamlet replies, “Words, words, words.”
Then, when the 13th Amendment is finally up for passage, Spielberg goes through the calling of the role of the entire House of Representatives (by state, since each state gets one vote) and this ponderous scene makes one yearn to watch grass grow. Worse, you won’t see a better example of overacting anywhere than by the people doing the voting. Astonishingly, when it’s finally passed, the entire House of Representatives breaks out in song, almost a production number as if this were a Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire musical.
As an historical aside having nothing to do with the movie (and not mentioned in the movie despite the incredible number of words used), the first 12 Amendments were passed within 15 years of the enactment of the Constitution. Two amendments had been proposed as the 13th, one of which, The Corwin Amendment, passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President James Buchanan on his last day of office in 1861, the day Lincoln became President. It would have forbidden the adoption of any Constitutional Amendment that would have abolished or restricted slavery, or permitted the Congress to do so (the very thing that the real 13th Amendment actually did). Lincoln, in his first inaugural address referred to The Corwin Amendment and said, “I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution … has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” The purpose of The Corwin Amendment was to persuade the south not to secede from the Union. It was passed by only three states and was obviously unsuccessful.
Finally there is the pace of the film. I don’t know what has happened to Spielberg because when he was a young man, pace was his specialty. His first film, Duel (1971), basically contained only one character, Dennis Weaver, battling a truck. The pace was intense. Similarly, he followed up with Jaws (1975) and the Indiana Jones trilogy, which were defined by terrific pace. On the contrary, this film is devoid of pace. It drags on and on and on, without credibility or cohesion.
Forget all the adulatory plaudits you might read, this could be the most boring movie ever made.