by Richard Brookhiser

So I finally saw the movie about America’s great rugged face – Diana Vreeland: The Eye Must Travel. The next night I saw Lincoln.

One of the most instructive moments of the evening was the shift from the trailers to the feature. The trailers were the usual — a barrage of crap bombs. There was some awful riff on The Wizard of Oz, coming in the spring. A shoot-em-up starring Tom Cruise; some race-war fantasy with Leonardo De Caprio. A grotesque thing by Jerry Bruckheimer about the Lone Ranger and the Transcontinental Railroad. The only affects were glowering, and explosions. The only craftsmanship was special effects. It was like watching the tantrum of a neglected psychotic child. 

Then began a slice of the life of Abraham Lincoln. Steven Spielberg of course gave us both halves of the evening. His sharks and space men and treasure hunters, and the blockbuster business they reaped, froze movies in infancy, at best boyhood. Only George Lucas has been equally destructive. Spielberg began trying to make amends with Schindler’s List. Lincoln is his latest installment.

The movie sacrifices motion for seriousness. I think that was a proper trade-off, but it leaves us with a pageant, rather than a film. One source of drama is Daniel Day Lewis’s performance. He captures Lincoln’s strangeness and loneliness, his slyness, the arm’s-length quality of his humor (he tells one of Lincoln’s favorite off-color stories, about Ethan Allen and what he finds in an English privy, very well). Sally Field as Mary Lincoln does well in a tough role. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens chews the carpet, but so did Thaddeus Stevens. Three rascals hired to round up (i.e., bribe) reluctant congressmen provide comic relief. (One quibble: Secretary of State William Seward summons the rascals from Albany, N.Y., as if he couldn’t have found sleazy operators simply by looking out into the corridors of the White House.)

The sources appear to have been Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Fiery Trail by Eric Foner. Ignored, thank God, were the determinist historians (“events have controlled me,” said Lincoln himself, in one of his classic poor-mouth misdirections). We could have used a pinch of Harry Jaffa. Lincoln at one point in the movie explains that he found his notions of equality in Euclid, which is interesting. But he said, oh maybe several thousand times, that his main inspiration was the Declaration of Independence.

The New York Post called the movie C-SPAN with hair. You haven’t seen so many beards since your last visit to hipster Brooklyn. It will help enormously to have read a book or two before you go. But if you love politics, and its possibilities, you will be entertained, and moved.

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