An Unimpressed Leslie Reviews Lincoln (A Few Spoilers)

The one review I received before seeing Lincoln was that it was ‘epic.’ I didn’t exactly agree.

Most people already know that Lincoln is a political thriller, if it’s anything. I would argue it’s more of an epic poem or a hymn on film. It’s a legend, not a documentary.

It seemed epic because it had all the things it needed to seem epic: dramatic lighting, swelling music, table pounding, and monologues, (oh my God, there were so many monologues). But that’s all the movie was. There was no give and take, no build and release. Each scene was its own crescendo. Each scene seemed like the most important scene. This, we were led to believe, was the moment when the vote was won. Repeat ad naseum. Eventually none of it really stirred me because it was all the same note, played over and over.

More than that, the most interesting characters (that guy Tommy Lee Jones always plays and the political-gangsters) were footnotes. I wished like crazy that the movie was about them. Every time they appeared on screen I started paying attention again, because they were fun and interesting and dynamic. But that’s not what the movie wanted to show. It really just wanted to highlight the ridiculousness of old white men deciding if black men were people.

Most of the humor seemed to awkwardly be about awkward old men being awkward. It really was funny, and kind of delightfully slapstick-y, except when you remembered that these people were trying to save millions of people from horrific death and enslavement. Wamp-wamp.

And there were so many white men! The movie was like a game of trying to remember who was who and who was important and who was a Democrat and who was a Republican and who was evil and whose brother died tragically. In the end I just decided I only cared about the guy I thought of as  Sideburns-Guy and Tommy Lee Jones. I love you, Tommy Lee Jones.

Which brings me to the biggest thing that bothered me about this movie. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of black actors on screen and none of them were characters. Some of them got really, really close. The closest was an angry young man in the opening scene who would like very much to be paid the same as white soldiers. He at least seemed to be speaking his mind. He occupied the interesting territory of admonishing Lincoln, (without being mocked by Lincoln’s wit, odd for this movie), while also respecting him. I would like to watch a movie about that man.

The other black speaking roles, a maid and a butler, had short monologues thanking Lincoln for saving them. And that was all. No complexity, no depth, no thought or change. They looked sad when people said mean things and smiled adoringly at Lincoln. In a movie about the freedom and dignity of black men and women, black men and women were props. In fact, in the penultimate scene the gallery is filled with black men and women, who are promptly forgotten. They are shown again only at the very end of the scene. To me, these were the most important people in the room.

In the end, Lincoln wasn’t terrible, but it suffered from over-telling and under-showing. The politicians did a lot of talking about the horror of the war, slavery, grief, etc, etc, but we never saw these things. The politicians were moved by seeing these things, but the audience was kept at arms length. It was a clean, glorious, and shallow analysis of the greatness of a great man who, lest we forget it, was great. Everyone else was just there to remind us of that.

In conclusion: few out of a bunch of stars. Someone give Tommy Lee Jones an award.

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