Did you ever notice the plaque on the wall in William L. Harkness Hall? As you rushed out of your History or French class, did you recognize the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in large, raised letters, just about at eye level? Hundreds of people must have passed it every day, without even a glance, myself included during the years I taught in that building. Except for an occasional difference in punctuation, the plaque faithfully reproduces word for word the standard text of Lincoln’s famous speech, along with a reproduction of his signature at the bottom. Even though it has been there many years, it is timely now to reexamine its ideals in light of recent efforts to increase campus diversity.
The 1963 publication “Yale Memorials” indicates that this plaque was donated by Joseph Seligman, class of 1908, “on the 30th reunion of his class in memory of its members who have died since graduation.” According to “Yale Memorials,” this attributive inscription appeared in WLH underneath the Gettysburg Address, on “a wooden plaque with gold lettering,” a plaque which no longer appears on the wall. This wooden tablet could have deteriorated and disappeared during renovation of WLH in the 1990s. Seligman must have donated the Gettysburg Address commemoration in 1938 or soon after. Since his classmates would have been in the right age group to have enlisted in World War I, many of them must have fought and died as the soldiers at Gettysburg did. Depending on the specific dates of commissioning and installation, this plaque may have been put on display ironically just as the United States took up arms again during World War II.
While Lincoln’s 1863 address memorializes those who died at Gettysburg in service to freedom, it also invokes the Declaration of Independence, the well-known “four score and seven years ago” recalling the events of 87 years earlier in 1776. Seligman links Yale to the goals of the Gettysburg Address and, indirectly, to the Declaration of Independence. He bestows these same ideals on his classmates and inspires the plaque’s readers to continue to defend liberty and those oppressed.
The plaque is a material reminder of certain connections between Lincoln and Yale. For instance, Lincoln spoke to a large, enthusiastic crowd in New Haven at Union Hall, on March 6, 1860, before he was nominated as a Republican Party candidate for president (which occurred in May of that year). A large brick building, Union Hall once stood on Union Street in New Haven, not far from Water Street. Lincoln was on a campaign tour at that time, speaking on matters connected to the slavery question.He came at the invitation of James Babcock, an attorney and publisher of a New Haven newspaper, the Palladium. Lincoln had just delivered a celebrated address on February 27, 1860, at the newly established Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. Then on March 5, after appearances in New Hampshire, he spoke at City Hall in Hartford, Connecticut, arriving in New Haven in the glow of those recent gatherings. Many in the Yale community already knew of Lincoln and his coming visit had aroused great interest. For instance, according to Judith Schiff in a 2009 Yale Alumni Magazine article, John Candee, class of 1847 and Law School class of 1849, had written to Lincoln in anticipation of his visit to New Haven. Candee planned to meet with him here: “so many of us have met you and we shall find you at the Cars or Hotel.”
James Russell Lowell, a Harvard man, related an anecdote about a Yale College “professor of rhetoric” who had heard Lincoln speak in New Haven and who then attended a subsequent appearance by Lincoln in Meriden on March 7, 1860. In a scholastic edition of Lincoln’s papers from 1888, Lowell recounts how Lincoln was surprised and pleased that his words would have attracted the interest of such a notable personage as a Yale professor, especially given his own professed lack of formal education. Lowell saw a philosophic sympathy between the Yale intellectual environment and Lincoln’s ideas.
The memorial plaque in WLH deserves a prominent place in the ongoing efforts of Yale University to improve inclusion and diversity on campus. It offers a positive image of University architecture and design and should inspire hope in those who see it. It would be fitting for the Committee on Art in Public Spaces to restore the missing identification once beneath the Gettysburg Address plaque, as well as to polish its darkened metal alloy, in order to increase awareness of these egalitarian and humanitarian values in Yale history. We cannot change who we were, but we can reinterpret the past with fresh eyes so that we change who we become.
Anne Dropick is a fellow in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I was that guy — or, at least, I wanted to be. In the theater. After the movie. The one who walked out going, “They all looked so accurate. Especially Edwin Stanton! And Salmon P. Chase. And did you notice how Lincoln’s body was slanted at the very end? That’s historically accurate!”
Last year, I took a class called “Lincoln in Thought and Action.” I went into the class a Lincoln skeptic. This was the man, after all, who suspended habeas corpus, who was a moderate on slavery, who announced his willingness to accept slavery so long as it didn’t spread. I finished the course, as did, I believe, every single one of my classmates, a Lincoln believer.
I have a friend who told me I had a “Lincoln fetish,” because I talked about Lincoln so much at lunch. And breakfast. And dinner. And parties.
For “Lincoln in Thought and Action,” I purchased two handsome, blue volumes of Lincoln’s speeches and writings. For the next several months, my classmates and I delved into Abe’s oratory, discussing, analyzing, arguing. My interpretations — pretentious and dilettante-ish — rarely held water. But every now and then, I struck gold.
Fast-forward one year. I am sitting with nine of my former classmates, watching the man, the legend, on screen. Our professor is with us. We are there to see “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s latest instant-classic, a film so well-cast and well-done that it has the Academy drooling Oscar juice already.
The film doesn’t end well for its title character. But in a blurry sort of flashback, at the end, we see Lincoln giving a rousing speech in his weirdly high and whiny voice. (Also historically accurate!) “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” I mouth along. It’s Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, usually grouped among his best speeches. My pride in the man cannot match my pride in my memory.
Alas, I am losing my Lincoln knowledge. I have attempted to rejuvenate it with supplemental readings like “Manhunt” and “The Fiery Trial” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s epic and epically long “Team of Rivals.” But I am losing my knowledge all the same. Never again will I know quite so much about an American president.
For our final in “Lincoln and Thought and Action,” we were given a list of numerous, semi-obscure Lincoln quotes, and we had to name the year, the speech, and the context. Take a dozen or so quotes, divide them by the hundreds or thousands of pages of Lincoln we read, and you’ll begin to understand the spike in my blood pressure. Never before (and never again) will I spend quite so much time studying for a test worth, I believe, 15 percent of my final grade.
But it was worth it.
For instance, I can tell you that “Lincoln” the movie gets some things wrong — a few of them major. Lincoln was not nearly as dictatorial as he is portrayed to be. A number of the film’s premises are predicated on historical possibilities, not historical fact.
Still, the movie was excellent. The class was excellent. And Lincoln remains — to me, and my classmates and Tony Kushner — transcendent. For his entire life, he harbored an abiding revulsion of slavery. Slavery, and indifference to slavery, were among the only things he ever truly loathed. It was discussing slavery and its spread that Lincoln used the word “hate,” one of very, very few times in a long political career that he did so. About indifference or “covert, real zeal for the spread of slavery,” Lincoln said, “I cannot but hate.” He was not a religious man, but he hated slavery with a righteous passion. He could not but hate it. It was not a choice.
Lincoln was not perfect, nor does “Lincoln” portray him to be perfect. But it seems to me that he was as close as we’ll ever get. Lincoln qualified his opinion on slavery in public, until, after decades of work and a Union victory to soften the blow, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” tells the next chapter of the story — the passage of a constitutional amendment banning slavery once and for all.
At dinner after the film, one of my former classmates asked our former professor, why so much hullabaloo about a former president? My professor responded with a number of reasons: we’re now in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and, soon, Lincoln’s assassination. We’re now in the middle of the presidency of Barack Obama, a man frequently likened to Lincoln (aided by Obama’s own notions of himself).
I agreed. But it’s more than that. Lincoln is relevant to any time, any age. His popularity will come in swings, but it will never truly go. It can’t. I have a notebook full of class notes and a ticket stub to prove it.
Our Man of Illinois (or, Saint Abe of the Prairie State): A Review of “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)
by Patrice Bowman
Historical figures never fail to interest us common folk. When these famous people come alive on the movie screen, we can experience their moments of greatness (and not-so-greatness) for ourselves. So it makes sense that in the right director’s hands, Abraham Lincoln’s life can be depicted with a balance of heroism and frailty that awes viewers. It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has twelve Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
But before Spielberg, another prolific director portrayed Lincoln’s life — and, no, I’m not talking about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012), because that shouldn’t have been a thing. D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln” (1930), like Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” ostensibly divides its time between some of the historical facts and what Lincoln symbolized: freedom, unity and honesty. But Griffith is so devoted to Lincoln the Symbol — even more so than Spielberg — that he doesn’t show the more engaging Lincoln the Human.
The episodic structure covers many parts of Abraham Lincoln’s (Walter Huston) life, going through his time as a shop-keeper, career as a lawyer, marriage to Mary Todd (Kay Hammond), his debates with Stephen A. Douglas (E. Alyn Warren), his presidency, the Civil War and his death. The staccato storytelling strips the entire cast, except the Lincolns, down to their barest functions in the plot. Hammond’s Mrs. Lincoln is a shrew when she should’ve been a more complicated woman. Huston is a decent Lincoln. He looks the part and speaks in an authoritative tone, which I missed in Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal; however, Huston awkwardly plops portions of Lincoln’s speeches into normal conversation. His interpretation, unlike Day-Lewis’s, is stiffly hagiographic for the most part.
I could blame the stagnant feel on the 1930s film industry’s transition from silent to sound, because the new equipment impeded the fluid movement of cameras and of actors. Sound or no sound, though, Griffith’s grasp on narrative rhythm is shakier than Hammond’s Southern accent. Lincoln’s development into a wise man is a bombardment, not a flow, of events.
Another issue is that, as Spielberg does in his “Lincoln,” Griffith ignores slavery’s horrors and pushes Blacks to the sidelines. The former ignores all of the efforts of African-Americans to abolish slavery, but the latter rarely shows them at all. Considering the buffoonery and brutishness connected to onscreen Blacks (both real and “Black-face” ones) in his legendary “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), I suppose he thought the safest option was to not take any chances.
Yet even with this precaution and the prestige of the subject, the film didn’t see huge success in the ’30s. If both films portray the same figure and share similar issues, why was Spielberg’s version received better than Griffith’s? Let’s start at the states of the filmmakers’ careers when they made the biopics. Spielberg had directed two successful films (“The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse”) in the same year that he released “Lincoln” and was at a directorial high-point. On the other hand, after “The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith’s subsequent works didn’t consistently earn him financial or critical success. He was, until his death, in something of a rut.
And apart from career highs and lows, Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the better film. It benefits from tighter narrative focus and technique—not just from advanced technology, but from a better acknowledgement of the cinematic ideas Griffith himself helped set up with “Birth of a Nation.” True, Spielberg has his moments of sentimentality. And he still portrays Lincoln as the “Great White Savior of the Slaves” when, historically, the real man was less ideal. But there’s still some moral ambiguity within “Lincoln.” With Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln,” there’s too much melodrama and not enough, well, drama.
Have you been doing your homework? Not your archaeoastronomy problem set, but YOUR MOVIE-GOING DUTIES. Did you go to the Criterion every week? Did you cry when Naomi Watts cried on screen? Did you pontificate when Daniel Day-Lewis pontificated? Did watching “Life of Pi” make you feel like you just drank a sea full of water? Well, the Oscars are being held this Sunday! Luckily, our savvy WEEKEND troopers have watched and read and digested all the information you need to catch up before Hollywood’s biggest night. Time to make the grade, kiddos.
Becca and Lomax: a dialogue
// BY BECCA EDELMAN AND MICHAEL LOMAX
Becca Edelman: I’d like to start things off with the thought that “The Master” was inexcusably ignored in this year’s nominations. While it may have been a bit inaccessible, the film was an aesthetic masterpiece, gorgeous from start to finish. And when a film’s three main actors are nominated for an award, doesn’t that say something about directorial skill? I was hoping at least for a nod to Paul Thomas Anderson.
Michael Lomax: That Paul Thomas Anderson was robbed of a best picture, best director and best writing nom is simply a travesty. “Master” was a movie with great ambition and astounding scope. What pains me the most is the fact that David O. Russell and his ballyhooed rom-dramedy might walk away with the biggest haul here.
BE: Really? I thought “Silver Linings” was a great story, with great performances. But watching the pre-Oscar buzz, I’m not ready to say that it will walk away with too many awards. Ebert described the film as “so good, it could almost be a terrific old classic.” I think “almost” is the key word here — it’s almost there. For Oscar gold, I’m looking for something with a little more substance, a little more artistry. Which brings me to the real elephant in the room: What in the world has been going on with “Argo”?
ML: “Argo” winning the Golden Globe sent a very clear message to this year’s crop of Oscar contenders: There is no favorite. All we can agree on is that “Argo” will not be winning the big one. I mean, it can’t! It’s a fantastic thriller, but it just doesn’t have the “feel” of a movie that could take home cinema’s biggest prize. But what exactly are those specific extra qualities?
BE: Some combination of the accessibility of “Argo” and the ambition of “The Master.” “Lincoln” certainly cleans up in the latter category, but I found the film to be a meandering disappointment. Perhaps “Zero Dark Thirty” fits the bill.
ML: A “meandering disappointment”? If we’re going to stamp any movie with that label, we might as well slap “ZDT” with it. Not saying it’s a bad film at all, but did it need to be 157 minutes long? Same with “Lincoln.” In fact, all the movies that have been nominated have glaring flaws that could doom them. We’re better off trying to predict the other major awards. Speaking of which, the year’s best director was…?
BE: If I ruled the world, it would be Anderson. But, as he isn’t an option, I would have to go with Spielberg. Even if “Lincoln” wasn’t his finest, I think the Academy will give him the award as a lifetime achievement acknowledgement.
ML: I don’t disagree with your reasoning. But “Lincoln” just wasn’t all that good, though I’ll admit the performances were quite incredible at times (specifically: Day-Lewis’ and Jones’). So I guess you have to honor a director for that. If not, who else?
BE: We’re also forgetting about the most interesting addition to the category: Benh Zeitlin. He’s only 30, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is his first film and he’s nominated in a category with Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee. I don’t think he’ll win, but if he did that would be pretty exciting.
ML: “Beasts” was my favorite film from 2012. It was beautifully incomprehensible and stark in its sentiments, and it’s precisely because of these facts that I don’t think Zeitlin has a chance to win. If anything, Quvenzhané Wallis (aka Hushpuppy) has a better shot of bringing home an Oscar. But we all know the best actress category is coming down to Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence. Who you got?
BE: Lawrence has a well-executed and well-managed career: She already has a nomination for a hit indie under her belt, as well as the lead in a lucrative franchise. And Chastain has made a name for herself working with prestigious directors like Malick and Bigelow. But I think the award will definitely go to Chastain. Lawrence is too young, and her part was too comedic. Then again, there’s also been a lot of hype about Emmanuelle Riva’s performance in “Amour.”
ML: Riva’s work was heart-wrenching, but I doubt enough people have seen Michael Haneke’s devastating film. Instead it really does come down to Lawrence and Chastain, and of the two, I would go with Chastain precisely because of the reasons you’ve mentioned. That doesn’t mean I’m counting out Lawrence, but her time doesn’t have to be now necessarily. At least the men’s side is a bit more clear. I’m penciling in Daniel “All Day, Every Day”-Lewis to grab his record-setting third best actor crown.
BE: My true favorite for the category would be Phoenix, but I would bet on Day-Lewis for the win, too. The really interesting race will be for best supporting actor — every actor nominated has already won an Oscar. Waltz won the Golden Globe, but I don’t think the Academy will be quick to give him an award for what some might deem a quite similar role to his turn in “Inglourious Basterds.” As I said about Lawrence, I think that, for De Niro and Arkin, their performances were too light, and Hoffman was great but overshadowed. I think the winner will/should be Tommy Lee Jones, who was responsible for a large proportion of the few shining moments in “Lincoln.”
ML: Tommy Lee deserves it, hands down. But what about best supporting actress? Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln was forgettable and hardly worth any fanfare. Same with Jacki Weaver, Amy Adams and Anne Hathaway (though I’m in love with her, all things considered). As such, I’m staking my claim that Helen Hunt deserves the Oscar. She put herself on the line in “The Sessions,” and she ought to be rewarded.
BE: Hathaway may have a shot, too, especially due to all the press she’s gotten for her role. It seems to me that this year’s awards have less obvious winners than there have been in past seasons. I guess we’ll just have to watch and see!
ML: You’re right. We will see. For the first time in years, there’s no guessable front-runner. It’s anybody’s game, though I think we can all agree that “Argo” isn’t getting lucky twice. If it does, I’ll eat a brick.
Caleb’s picks: a soliloquy
// BY CALEB MADISON
Caleb Madison: For best picture, “ARGO” — UGH I love this movie SO much. I’m so glad Ben Affleck has moved past having a sense of humor (like in “Mallrats” and “Dogma”) and also writing what he knows (like “Good Will Hunting” and “Gone Baby Gone”). “Argo” is about SO MUCH MORE than those movies. The whole time you’re like “Is America going to save them?” and then at the end you’re like “YE SSS!!!” At first Iran is like, “No Americans allowed! We hate America!” but then they realize that Hollywood is totally different from America, and that Hollywood rules! I love that. It makes you think, because the power of movies is what saves those hostages, but it’s ALSO what makes the audience like the movie! It’s about time the Academy recognized a movie about how amazing movies are. I have never seen “The Artist.”
CM: Yeah, totally! And for best actor, Daniel Day-Lewis in “LINCOLN” — YES! What a film. Daniel Day-Lewis transforms himself into Lincoln SO WELL. In the middle of the movie I took out a penny and I held it up to the screen and I was like, “WHAAAA!!!?” It made me realize that presidents have so much power. And, like, what are our presidents of today doing? Lincoln was like, “Sorry, haters, but I have to follow my beliefs.” When’s the last time Obama did that? If ONLY politicians saw and made a big deal about seeing this movie. Also Lincoln’s speeches were crazy. It was like every scene had a different moral! He would go up to a group of confused men and be like, “Hey… let me tell you a story.” Then he’d tell a story that started out totally random so everyone was like “Hunh!??!!” but then at the end you realized there was a moral that totally related to what they were talking about. It’s about time the Academy recognized Daniel Day-Lewis in a role about a conflicted larger-than-life historical figure. I have seen neither “There Will Be Blood” nor “My Left Foot.”
CM: I totally see that. And for best supporting actress, Anne Hathaway in “LES MISÉRABLES” — I dreamed a dream… that Anne Hathaway made me cry with song!!!! But it was real life!!!! I know what a lot of you are thinking. “A two-and-a-half hour musical with no dialogue? About the French?” But “Les Miz” has so many more aspects than that. Like the fact that all the singing was done live on set. When you watch Anne Hathaway sing and cry in one continuous shot, you are watching real life. And she actually cut her hair for the role too! That’s Acting. That’s dedication. We haven’t seen an actress do something so brave since Natalie Portman in that comic book movie seven years ago. It’s about time the Academy recognized the performance of an actress in a musical who uses her tender yet resilient singing voice to express her personal struggles. I have never seen “La Vie En Rose” or “Walk the Line.”
CM: Totes, man! And finally, for best supporting actor, Christoph Waltz in “DJANGO UNCHAINED” — Let me get this off my chest: I love Quentin Tarantino movies. When I saw “Pulp Fiction” for the first time in eighth grade I was like, “Yes.” I couldn’t stop quoting it for the next 10 years. I have the Bible passage that Samuel L. Jackson says before he kills people MEMORIZED. Whenever I eat a burger I’m like, “Mmm! That’s a tasty burger!” The thing I like about Tarantino movies is that, even though sometimes they’re serious, everyone talks about the most random weird things! It’s like my real life, and how my friends talk about just random things! And I imagine Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz being best friends in real life. It’s like Quentin calls him up and is like, “Hey, I’m making another movie with witty speeches, do you still have your hilarious accent?” and Christoph is like, “Y’Doy! Does my character speak way more formally than everyone else? Does he use really long words that he has to explain and go on long random wordy tangents?” and Quentin is like, “Y’Doy!” It’s about time the Academy recognized Christoph Waltz. I have never seen “Inglourious Basterds.”
An adequate ode to Jessica Chastain
// BY OLIVER PRESTON AND ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER
Unknown were the snows of Abbottabad
Before good Jessica, about as bad
As Samuel L., or J. Christ’s dad,
Stormed onto the screen, all pantsuit clad.
Jessica, you are the strong woman in consummate form,
Come Hillary, come Michelle, look on and adore!
This love child of Big’low and the good goddess Sass,
Writes boldly in red on our hearts’ shining glass…
(A much-needed digression in couplet form:
Jessica’s competitors and their patent inadequacy.)
Ms. Watts, just forget it, Chastain’s unstoppable,
This awards show will teach you the meaning of impossible.
J-Law, we love you, but this Oscar gold lacks silver lining,
Looks like behind Jessica you’ll ever be climbing.
Emmanuelle, this is AMERICA, so we suggest that you geaux.
Who even are you? No seriously, we want to know.
Quvenzhané Wallis, your name is weird.
Also, you are a child.
Jessica Chastain breaks gender binaries.
She literally breaks them.
She waterboards them.
If you haven’t seen any of the films…
// BY CYNTHIA HUA AND ANDREW WAGNER
Did you spend over 15 hours in a movie theater this year watching all the best picture nominees? Neither did we. Fortunately, we sat through all nine trailers to help you get through even the film-snobbiest Oscar party. It’s just like faking your way through section.
Let’s start with the one movie that nobody cares about —
“Amour”: It’s French and about old people (we can stop here). Every time it comes up, drop a “Mmm … intéressant” and drink. However, that won’t be necessary because we don’t think this will win any awards.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”: We were uncertain whether this was a movie trailer or a Levi’s commercial. The premise is confusing: Why does a woman have cave paintings tattooed on her leg? Why is there a monster with fangs? I thought this was a movie about Hurricane Katrina?
“Zero Dark Thirty”: It’s so dark. So political. Ugh. Literally don’t even feel like watching the trailer for this. Pass. Also, we’re pretty sure it’s actually the same thing as “Homeland.”
Don’t get this one mixed up with “Argo,” which also appears to be very political and set in the Middle East. The only reason Andrew knows about this movie is cause his high school teacher’s daughter is in it (Shout out to Mr. Bishé!).
We have nothing to say about “Silver Linings Playbook” except that the best looking actors are in it, so it gets our vote for best picture. Can’t wait to see what they wear.
“Django Unchained”: We’re not sure, but this might be about slavery. Cowboy slaves? “Lincoln” is definitely about slavery. As far as “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln” are concerned, you should treat these two as opposite ends of the political spectrum, pick a side and fight anybody who challenges you to the death. Also, both of these may or may not be racist — if either of them wins awards, best to play it safe and feign moral outrage.
Finally, there is “Les Misérables” which is everything all at once, and “Life of Pi,” which we forgot about.
Oscars season is always exciting for Hollywood — but this year, the drama is coming home to Connecticut.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney has accused the Oscar-nominated film “Lincoln” of historical inaccuracy in its depiction of Connecticut’s role in the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude. According to Courtney, the film indicates that Connecticut representatives voted against the 13th Amendment, when in fact, they were in favor of the legislation.
“How could congressmen from Connecticut – a state that supported President Lincoln and lost thousands of her sons fighting against slavery on the Union side of the Civil War – have been on the wrong side of history?” Courtney wrote in his letter to Steven Spielberg, the director of “Lincoln.”
Courtney has asked that the particular scene in “Lincoln” be refilmed or dubbed before the movie is released on DVD. But Tony Kushner, the screenwriter for “Lincoln,” called Courtney’s complaint ridiculous, telling New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that Courtney should not receive acclaim for criticizing a 15-second clip in a film that Kushner worked on for seven years.
I would not hesitate to classify Steven Spielberg’s newest film, “Lincoln,” as epic: It is epic in its length (verging on three hours), its dramatic acting (Daniel Day-Lewis does not even attempt to hide his Oscar greed), its portrayal of a moment that some might deem the most important in America’s history (the passing of the 13th Amendment). There is no doubt, then, that if in describing “Lincoln” as epic, one means that it is “heroic or grand in scale or character,” it quite certainly fits the bill. But does this “epic” nature necessitate the film’s caliber as a cinematic piece? Does the fact that “Lincoln” is an epic make it “epic” in the word’s colloquial connotation? With 12 Academy Award nominations under its belt, including those for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, “Lincoln” seems to have won the opinion of the Academy. A. O. Scott, the head film critic for The New York Times, too praised “Lincoln,” deeming it the second-best movie of the year, eclipsed only by “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Yet, the many times I checked my watch during the first hour of “Lincoln” prompts me to wonder just how captivating of a film it really is. Although the film showcases a beautiful aesthetic permeated by a few strong performances, ultimately, I posit that the film’s flat storyline, distant characters and lack of emotional upheaval leave the film cinematically vapid, generating a bland history lesson unqualified to win the modern film industry’s most prestigious award.
A first problem with “Lincoln” is its lack of emotional development. Although I lauded the film’s resolution — I don’t think that I will spoil anyone’s viewing experience by stating that the amendment passes — my satisfaction stemmed not from the plot or characters of the prior two and a half hours, but rather my preconceived notions. I entered the theater, as I believe did most viewers, with a strong aversion to slavery and a positive image of President Lincoln as an intelligent, charismatic leader. And, not surprisingly, at the end of the film I was still ardently anti-slavery and believed Lincoln to be a pretty good guy. Therefore, I was glad to see the abolition of slavery and the victory of one of our country’s greatest heroes. Yet these emotions were pulled by pre-existing ideals rather than anything the film brought to the table.
This lack of emotional pull derives mostly from a second problem of the film: an inability to create lovable or evolving characters. Mary (Sally Field), Lincoln’s wife, is an awful, self-centered, whining woman. Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln’s secretary of state, drifts in and out of the film without enough consistency to sustain viewer interest. And weakest of all was Lincoln’s young son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), whose sugary sweet innocence proved more aggravating than endearing.
This is not to say that the film does not showcase strong performances, for it certainly does. Rather, it is not the actors, but the characters themselves who fail. Most importantly, Lincoln himself, although played with a determined intensity by Lewis, remains cold and closed off to the audience. Scott, in his review, claims that the beauty of Lincoln’s character portrayal lies in the audience’s chance to watch him decide on the issue of the amendment. I would argue, rather, that the audience watches Lincoln decided, rather than in the act of deciding — a state quite different, and far less active or interesting than the situation that Scott praises. If the viewer senses any personal struggle within Lincoln, it is simply over politics and the seeming incompetence surrounding him. A moral struggle, questioning or active decision-making would have made for a much deeper, more consuming character.
These problems stem from a larger one: the problem of adaptation. I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow film critic Michael Lomax ’14 in his opinion that, in order to succeed, an adaptation must differentiate itself from its original. Such applies particularly in the case of the adaptation of a great work: an adaptation may simply fix a poor original, but the better the original, the more the copy must differ in order to achieve its own success. For a pertinent example, one might look at Baz Luhrmann’s new “Gatsby” film. Many have criticized its trailers for their indulgent use of Luhrmann style (in the vein of “Moulin Rouge!” or “Romeo + Juliet”) and modern rap music, lamenting the film’s seeming departure from the book. Yet, if Luhrmann attempted to create a literal version of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” hailed as one of America’s best literary works, could he do anything but flounder in comparison? By adding an element to the story, by reflecting the nouveau riche of “Gatsby” through excess, Luhrmann explicitly tells his audience that his is not a direct translation. It is an adaptation — it is Luhrmann’s.
Although Spielberg may not be adapting a timeless literary classic, he is certainly adapting for the screen a classic moment in American history. And the aforementioned “epic” style does pay homage to the importance of such a moment. Unfortunately, “Lincoln” has added no extra element to the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment — no intriguing story arch, no relatable characters, no modern perspective — and therefore leaves us with a textbook, a dry re-enactment rather than an enjoyable feature film.
Scott defends “Lincoln”’s value with a proclamation that it is a story about slavery. In clothing his story in such grandeur, Spielberg seems to claim to in fact present “the” story of slavery’s abolition, rather than “a” story of slavery’s abolition. And here lies yet a fourth problem with “Lincoln”: Where are the slaves? With slavery depicted in only a few, quick allusions to the difficult lives of young black children in the South, the film skips out on the true problems of slavery to present the audience with slavery not as an issue of human rights, but rather as an important struggle for the white man’s conscience. Far from claiming this to be Spielberg’s view of the issue, I have no doubt that this was how it was presented to Congress at the time. Yet, this is an adaptation. A major benefit of a depiction in the 21st century of a struggle in the mid-19th century would be to add a modern perspective. This modern perspective could have been the ingredient that “Lincoln” was missing, an element that could have elevated the film from a mere transcription of history to a great adaptation.
In a video interview with David Carr, A. O. Scott attempts to defend his view of “Lincoln.” Yet, he comes off as meek, inarticulate and wavering — it almost makes one wonder if Spielberg is a close personal friend or if Scott has some back-end deal with DreamWorks. He harps on “how tall [Lincoln] was” and the “use of voice” to personify the historical image of Lincoln. Yes, these aspects were intriguing, and most definitely contribute to historical accuracy and the film’s grand scale. But beyond these details, Scott’s responses consist of nothing more than a sixth-grader’s whining and defensive retorts. He seems to have nothing to say about “Lincoln” rather than to admire its epicness.
Spielberg, a historical, innovative and talented director, has created a picture that screams of its own epic nature. Yet, does this a best picture make? I would argue no, and hope that the Academy will too.