Today: February 21, 2024

Hollywood has a long tradition

Hollywood has
a long tradition of historical bio-pics that play fast and loose with the
Take 1995’s Braveheart for instance. In reality, William Wallace did indeed kick significant amounts of English
bottom but, while no Lord, he was landed gentry not the ordinary commoner
depicted by Mel Gibson. His greatest victory, the Battle of Stirling, depicted in the
film as the first time an English Cavalry charge was defeated by Scots
infantry, actually took place at Stirling Bridge and, far from standing up to a
cavalry charge, the Scots merely twatted the English knights as they tried to
cross the bridge two abreast. He
never wore woad as depicted in the film and it’s also doubtful Wallace boffed
and knocked up Edward II’s Queen as Isabella was about 10 at the time
and still living in France. Still,
10 Oscar nominations and 5 wins (including Best Film and Best Director) later,
historical accuracy can go suck an egg.

Similarly, in 2001, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator gave us a despotic, patricidal Emperor Commodus with a harelip and an
incestuous fancy for his sister who was universally hated by the people and
quite enjoyed the odd spot of gladiatorial combat. 12 Oscar nominations and 5 wins however make it pretty easy
to ignore the fact that Commodus’ father, Marcus
, died either of plague or smallpox while on campaign rather than
being murdered by his son, Commodus was no despot and was almost universally
loved by the people, ruling for 13 years, and while he did enjoy entering the
arena, he did it anonymously for the most part and certainly wasn’t killed by
an Aussie in a leather skirt, instead being strangled in his bath. And far from nursing a forbidden love
for his sister he had her exiled then executed after she plotted to have him
assassinated. Which would have
been a slightly less crowd-pleasing ending to the movie.

Released in UK cinemas this week with 12 Oscar nominations trailing
in it’s wake, it’s not a huge surprise then that Steven Spielberg’s reverent bio-pic of America’s 16th
President, Abraham Lincoln, dodges
the thornier aspects both of Lincoln’s life (his suspension of habeas corpus
and his arrest and imprisonment without trial of thousands of Northern citizens
including journalists and congressmen, his ties to Northern industrialists) and
the politics and causes of the Civil War (states rights, taxation,
industrialisation and federalism are never mentioned, only slavery) in favour
of the hallowed popular vision of Lincoln as the Great White Emancipator of the
American Negro.

Anchored by a frankly ridiculous performance by Daniel Day Lewis (who recently won the Best Actor Golden Globe)
who’s more Abe Simpson than Abe Lincoln, Spielberg’s Lincoln isn’t so much a film as a two and a half hour history
lecture for primary school pupils, eschewing vampire hunting for a series of
dense conversations in dimly-lit rooms conducted by white middle-aged men (and
they are all white men) with varying
degrees of facial hair who dicker, horse-trade and bribe one another to force
through legislation that few wanted.
With the exception of some black Union soldiers, it relegates African
Americans to the role of passive observers, faithful servants nobly waiting for
the white man to free them.
Focusing solely on the final weeks of Lincoln’s life and his struggle to
pass the hugely unpopular 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery, the
film drastically exaggerates the chance that the war would end with slavery
still intact, ignoring the fact that, by the time the film is set, former
slave-owning Southern states Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland and
even Missouri had already abolished slavery of their own volition, freeing
three million of the South’s four million slaves. Slavery was already dead; the passage of the 13th
Amendment was merely the rubber stamp.

While Day Lewis shambles through the film and Sally Field chews the scenery as Mad Mary Lincoln, whining and
weeping more than she did in Steel
, the supporting cast are excellent with Tommy Lee Jones turning in a barnstorming performance as the gruff
abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and David
understated as Secretary of State (and Lincoln’s alleged lover,
though the film never mentions that)
William Seward. By far the best
things about the film however are James
, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson who play the three
dodgy geezers Lincoln and Seward employ to attain the necessary pro-Amendment
votes through under-the-table deals and bribery.

Ultimately, Lincoln is
far too worthy to satisfy as drama, too worshipful to work as history, a
simplistic reading of events that fails to do justice to a complicated man and
the complex times he lived in.
It’s overlong and soporific and every time Day Lewis puts his hat on,
your heart will soar at the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he’s on his way
to the Ford Theatre and you’ll finally be released.

If D.W. Griffith’s
reprehensible Birth of a Nation was,
as 28th President Woodrow Wilson said, “like writing history with
lightning,” it’s unfortunate that Spielberg’s Lincoln takes two and a half hours to write history via
Twitter. Slavery bad 🙁 lol.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email:

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