It's been a busy couple of days for me.
a beautiful course that stretched through downtown Philly, through Fairmount Park, and then along the Schuylkill River to Manayunk and back. I finished in 4:01:18. About a minute behind my goal, but I'm entirely happy.
After the race, the original plan called for my fiancée Emily and I to head down to Wilmington, Delaware to meet up with my college friend Ryan, and then head off to see Lincoln Sunday night. Needless to say - having gotten up at 4:30 and run 26.2 miles, I decided to postpone our Lincoln viewing. Luckily - all three of us had taken Monday off. And so yesterday morning we headed off to an 11:50 a.m. showing.
Ryan and I have a history of being let down by Civil War movies. We became friends on our first day of college in 2001 when we started talking about how excited we were about the making of the upcoming film, Gods and Generals. Two years later, we found ourselves walking out of the theater wondering if we had ever seen such a bad film. This time around - we tried to temper our expectations.
Having said all that - we all walked out agreeing that this film was excellent - and the acting superb. Obviously the buzz has surrounded Daniel Day-Lewis and his amazing performance as Lincoln, but I find it hard to think of any actor/actress in this film who doesn't deserve special mention. In addition to Day-Lewis as Lincoln, I particularly enjoyed David Strathairn as Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stevens, and James Spader as political operative W.N. Bilbo. If you enjoy the Civil War - or really if you just enjoy history, you will like this movie.
Now for the history behind it. Like any historical movie, Lincoln at times uses artistic license, compresses time, and gets a bit fuzzy or details and fact, but I found very little in the way of glaring historical errors that often annoy the ardent history buff. On the flip side - I enjoyed some of the small historical details that went into the film - and the effort to portray faithfully specific personality traits of many of the main characters. Without giving away too much of the ending, I found the depiction of Lincoln's assassination a fresh take on a storyline that Hollywood has attempted many times.
The historical criticisms of this film so far have rested on one point: the film overly-dramatizes the central plot - the passage of the 13th amendment. Historian Eric Foner has argued that the movie gives far too much credit to Lincoln for the passage of the amendment, and portrays its passage in early 1865 as a crisis situation, when in reality it was not.
Foner's point is absolutely correct, but every Hollywood film based on a historical story overly-dramatizes the plot. We should always take Hollywood portrayals of history with a grain of salt, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy them. Slavery was for all intents and purposes already dead before the passage of the 13th amendment, and if the amendment had not passed in January of 1865, it surely would have passed in March. Nonetheless, its passage was a big deal.
Kate Masur offered another critique of the film, taking issue with Steve Spielberg's focus on Lincoln, Stevens and other white characters, while relegating African American characters to minor, passive roles. In her review Masur assures readers that her criticism is not mere "nitpicking." I tend to think that it is. The film is a political drama with Abraham Lincoln as its central figure. Unfortunately, the historical reality of this drama is that African American figures for the most part did remain on the margins of this fight in congress - a product of the social system of the time. I also felt as though Spielberg did a nice job of trying to bring the voice of black characters into the story as much as possible - including William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley. I would agree with Masur though that not finding a way to work Frederick Douglass into the story was a major omission.
In all - I would highly recommend the film. And if it succeeds in encouraging viewers to pick up a book on Lincoln, then it has to rate as a historical success as well as a cinematic success.