David Thomson: Spielberg's "Lincoln" is a Film for our Political Moment

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David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.

Now that films have wormed their way into the timeless halls of art, and now that technology permits audiences to watch when it suits them, the opening of a film means less and less. Still, some cling to the belief (or the hope) that a movie carries a special meaning at the weekend or the day of its opening. There is enough of a newspaper’s transient urgency in a movie to make it a sensation on Friday and a throwaway a week later. I’m not suggesting that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (let alone Daniel Day-Lewis’s picture) will burn off that fast. Still, to see it in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s second election is the way to go. You can tell yourself that the resulting surge of emotion is a matter of chance, or God-given, but then you realize that Steven must have organized it this way. He foresaw our moment, he designed his opening, and Lincoln is especially momentous as the second Obama administration realizes there is no peace for the elected. It would have had a different resonance if the November 6 result had gone the other way. But Steven—not for the first time—planned an opening that would work either way.

If you are so provided, you will want to take your children to see this picture, but they will not thank you. As written by Tony Kushner and conceived by Spielberg, Lincoln is 149 minutes of dense talk and intricate political maneuver. There is little action to speak of, and no glimpse of Lincoln’s assassination. There is a moment of Lincoln, gaunt and bent over on his horse, surely Christ-like, touring a battlefield, stepping amid the shattered corpses. Apart from that, this is a movie of rooms filled with smoke, the white light of winter, and the unceasing grumbling of politics, which is patient, cunning, and manipulative—whether discussing the freeing of the slaves or adding fat to pork in a bridge to nowhere for Ohio. Your children may not follow the complicated vote-gathering of the early months of 1865. They will not understand what Republican and Democrat meant then. They are unaccustomed to a film that unwinds so gradually, let alone one that relishes the politics of compromise and getting a thing done. This is more a film for Robert Caro than for the masters of combat video games. It is an account of how an act of Congress, an amendment to the Constitution, passed; the film could have been called The Thirteenth Amendment.

Lincoln is at pains to be historically accurate, not just in costume and décor, but in the difficult passage of the thirteenth through the House of Representatives. It also admits that its own hero was wily, devious, exhausted and untiring. The credits admit to use of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, not just as a way of claiming bona fides, but in suggesting that the words used—circumlocutory, decorous but pungent, and far more elusive than most movie dialogue—come from documents and memoirs....

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