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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 23 FEBRUARY 2013Lincoln should win the Oscar for Best Whiskers. I have never seen such an array of mutton chops, chin curtains, Franz-Josefs, handlebars, Van Dykes and goatees. Indeed, in all things having to do with accuracy Lincoln should take away the prize. The White House is crowded, dusty and indecorous, exactly as it would have been when dignitaries arrived on horseback or by carriage and not by car. The rooms look like they were lit by windows and firelight, not movie backfills.  Congress is raucous; battlefields are muddy. Hospitals dump soldiers’ severed limbs outdoors. 

It’s the kind of movie that attracts high-class talent, and watching that talent work is one of the movie’s greatest pleasures. James Spader hams it up in a purple frock coat and bowler hat as sleazy political operative W.N. Bilbo. Lee Pace flashes with indignation as he makes the arguments for the Southern cause. Sally Field strikes just the right note as Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary’s fierce mood swings, public outbursts and protracted depression have led some historians to speculate that she might have suffered from bipolar disorder. Field keeps just the right edge of nineteenth-century hysteria without verging into twenty first-century crazy. She’s a passionate mother in a war-torn nation who has lost one son, and who might lose more. 

Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln
and Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln.
Photo: Dreamworks

But the greatest performance belongs to Daniel Day Lewis. It would be easy to play the role as a noble statue. In fact, the film loves to play with the famous shillouettes of Lincoln from the penny and the Lincoln Memorial, as if to imply that here is an American hero come to life. In this context, it is the highest praise to say that Day Lewis’s performance is enigmatic, original — even educational. Instead of easy heroism or anti-heroism, Day Lewis gives us a Lincoln who is frustrating and mysterious. He is still, silent and calm, even (indeed especially) when those around him are panicking. When his aides think argument is called for, he’ll launch into a folksy story. When politicians want capitulation, he’ll yell. Behind it all, the audience can see a fierce strategic intelligence. Each of Lincoln’s personae are deployed at the point of maximum impact: the folksy backwoodsman, the passionate liberator, the troubled leader. Behind them lies a face as enigmatic and expressionless as the head on a coin.  

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln
Photo: Dreamworks

The movie would be a shoo-in for best picture if it weren’t for the rambling script. The temptation in this kind of picture is to pack everything in, and unfortunately for Tony Kushner this isn’t a two-part theatrical evening or a seven-hour miniseries. The script is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which is a history book rather than a work of fiction, and the movie share’s the historian’s desire to recognize small players and include surprising details, even if those details throw off the line of the plot. The movie could have been an excellent ensemble production about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, but the decision was made to go towards biography, and the two fit poorly together. Viewers who love political action will yawn through the sentimental scenes where Abe and Mary try to dissuade their son Robert from going to war; viewers who want a glimpse of the man will fidgit during the drawn out cabinet meetings and congressional debates.  

Lincoln cabinet scene from Lincoln.
Photo: David James/Dreamworks

The only thing that could hold the plot together would be watching the development of its main character. But it is one of the geniuses of Daniel Day Lewis’s performance that we never see Lincoln develop. He is opaque in the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It’s great for the character, but murder on the plot. Nor does the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment provide much suspense. True, it is a joyous and momentous occasion. But it hardly keeps the audience on the edges of their seats, wondering whether it will pass.

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln
Photo: Dreamworks

When the movie dragged — and for me it did — I would imagine movie theaters full of history buffs and civil war renactors all across the country, each one of them poking their sleepy companions and regaling them with some important historical detail. "Look! That’s William H. Seward, who bought Alaska," "They never would have had black soldiers meet the surrender coach," "You know Lincoln’s son Edward died of tuberculosis," That housekeeper was a quadroon." This movie is made for those civil war buffs.  The only recourse for their tired spouses is to arrange a night at Les Mis.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American.  A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, she last reviewed Downton Abbey and The Crimson Petal and the White.


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