Susie dragged me to see Lincoln last night, and I am very glad that she did. I did not want to see the film [confession: I really wanted to see Jack Reacher, which tells you everything you need to know about my middlebrow tastes.] I have never been a fan of Lincoln, believing him not to have been truly an opponent of slavery, although my former colleague, the distinguished historian Manisha Sinha, has chastised me for this prejudice. Since she knows vastly more about the subject than I ever could, I ought to defer to her superior judgment.
The movie, as those of you who have seen it know, focuses on the months during which Lincoln fought to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Daniel Day Lewis' performance is splendid, but for my money, the actor who steals the show is Tommy Lee Jones as the great Radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.
Again and again, I found myself reduced to tears as I watched the two and a half hour movie. What affected me so powerfully was Steven Spielberg's decision to view the unfolding events repeatedly through the eyes of Negro soldiers, slaves, and servants, as well as the common law Negro wife of Stevens [Wikipedia tells me that there is no conclusive evidence that she and Stevens did in fact live as man and wife, although there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence, and I think Spielberg was totally within his rights to represent them in that fashion.]
Curious to see whether I was in this instance, as in the case of The Hobbit, out of step with the professional reviewers, I surfed the web a bit and found a very interesting and knowledgeable review by Kelly Candraede in the LA Review of Books. One does not often read a movie review that refers to Karl Marx, Max Weber, Eric Foner, Ira Berlin, Eric Hobsbawm, and Robin Blackburn. The gravamen of the review is that the movie is, as Foner apparently called it, an "inside the beltway" telling of the story that ignores the enormous role played by the slaves themselves in bringing about their liberation. This is of course true, although the reviewer made no mention at all of the greatest work advancing this interpretation, W. E. B. Du Bois' classic Black Reconstruction. But that strikes me as not really an appropriate complaint about a movie. Spielberg does not present his film as a telling of the story of Emancipation, or of the Civil War, or even of the life of Lincoln, and the nuanced complexity of his account is so far above what usually passes for historiography in the public discourse of this country that I am not inclined to complain about what it omits.
The one dimension of the film that the reviewers I read did not mention is what strikes me as the obvious fact that the movie is, among other things, a celebration of the fact of the Obama presidency. Be that as it may, this is a rich, complex, beautifully acted, visually striking film, and I recommend it to you most heartily.