A review divided against itself…
Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Joseph Gordon Levitt; directed by Steven Spielberg
(With apologies to President Lincoln for changing the eloquent words expressed in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.)
Four hours and seven days ago Steven Spielberg brought forth to theaters a new movie, conceived in great acting, and dedicated to the proposition that Abraham Lincoln was a folksy, tormented yet noble and politically adroit president.
Now we are engaged in a great civil discourse, testing whether any potential patron, so inclined and so dedicated, can long endure the over two and one half hours of its historically authentic look and feel duration. We (Patrick Teegarden, the Colorado Statesman’s Civil War columnist and I) met on a great battlefield of debate over this film. We have come to dedicate a portion of that discussion codified here, as a final resting place for our words and thoughts so that moviegoers might relive that tumultuous era. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot desecrate, we can not eviscerate, we can not hallow this movie ground. The talented men, working their magic in this medium, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what the film depicts here. It is for us the moviegoers, rather, to be impressed with the political machinations and maneuverings that precipitated the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery that Lincoln and his cohorts including his wife, his cabinet, the Congress, those behind the scenes, and they who fought in Civil War battlefields have so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from such honored topics and the people being portrayed that we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — the appreciation of the tactics of political gamesmanship involving lobbyists, wheeling and dealing, name-calling, the harsh expediency of compromise, demonizing the opposition, and the resolve that passion in a great cause such as freedom for all shall not die in vain — that this film, under Daniel Day-Lewis, shall portend a new birth of understanding and appreciation for the efforts that must be engaged in order to advance a noble political cause — and that a depiction of the nation’s government of the people, watched by the people, for the people, shall enjoy the acclaim it deserves.
Fellow filmgoers: At this re-imagining of the presidential office there is much occasion for an extended address than there was for the brief Lincoln inaugural addresses. Then a statement somewhat uplifting and memorable seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the anniversary of the Civil War years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest the after-effects of which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our historical achievements, upon which much of this movie chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to Mr. Teegarden and myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and accurate to most. With high hope for the endeavor, no prediction in regard to its meticulously examined veracity is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this formidable film all thoughts are anxiously directed to the impersonation of our 16th president by Daniel Day-Lewis. All anticipated it, all sought to deconstruct it. While the acting was being delivered from this film, devoted altogether to encapsulating an image and impression we might have of this sage leader, insurgent critics were in the theater seeking to destroy it without much evidence to say otherwise — seeking to pick apart and divide audiences by flawed numeration. Both appreciated the effort behind the war, but some of them would make war rather than let this movie survive on its own terms, and the other would accept the depiction rather than let it perish, and the film came.
One-eighth of the whole population may not be cognizant of the film’s central struggle to pass the anti-slavery Amendment and win the war, a film not initially distributed generally, but localized to New York and Los Angeles. The efforts to both block and pass that which espouses the essential freedom for all people engaged particular and powerful interests. All know that these interests were somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend these interests is the object for which the film is engaged, while a historical critic might claim a right to quibble about any specific aspect of it. Neither party (critic or admirer) expected a film of this magnitude to be of the duration which it has attained. Neither anticipated that the known endings of its depicted conflicts would still produce such tension and suspense and yet the episodic drawing out of the inevitable conclusion of the conflicts and dramas can excuse one from wondering if the film itself might never cease. Each might look for an easier, triumphant ending, and a result less obvious and moving. Both see the same film and eat the same popcorn, and each invokes his views against the other. It may seem strange that any critic should dare to request that a venerated historical film in wringing its bread from filmgoers’ pockets be judged, that it be not judged. The prayers of both critic and filmgoer could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The film has its own purposes. If we shall suppose that American politics is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, is a necessary evil, but which, having continued through our founding time, is seen as dysfunctional and removed from the people, and that both Republican and Democrat engage this terrible political war of 2012 as the woe due to those of us who find offense in the same, shall we discern therein any departure from those particular attributes which the actors in the current government ascribe to? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of political polarization may speedily pass away. Yet, if political wills take steps that it continue until all hope for strong leadership and fixing vexing problems that have endured for what feels like two hundred and fifty years are sunk, and until every attempt draw blood from the other side shall be paid by another political action committee drawn by the sword, as was said in this film, so it still applies and must be said “the judgments of the public are altogether irrelevant and yet essential.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the opinion as God gives us to see the light, let us strive on to view this film as an example of the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds after this divisive past presidential election, to care for our fellow filmgoer and citizen, to say all which may achieve and cherish a rewarding film-going experience that could provide the example for what we need for a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all political parties.
Doug Young is our longtime award-winning film critic. He is the senior policy director in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office.