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I shelved “Lincoln” for a while, torn between the perception that it would be a very interesting, while somehow dull, illustrated history lesson on the 13th amendment to the US Constitution (something that, while intellectually interesting, does not sound cinematically exciting), and the assumption that Spielberg usually does not really do boring (ok… he did, but not too often). Having seen it now, both was right. It is not boring, it is interesting, it is mostly well played, and it’s often even beautiful to watch. Ideally you would be very much awake and concentrated to follow the sharp discussions around the concept of slavery, and it is very enjoyable and rewarding to observe what somehow strange takes this discussions involved. Some characters opposing the abolition of slavery not because they thought there should be slaves, but rather because they were worried about the consequences of millions of people all of a sudden being released at once into economic and personal liberty. Lincoln himself pushing for the vote on the amendment at that specific time because he needed to have it passed before the slavery-reliant South was defeated, as a majority of citizens supported the amendment as a measure to end war, not as a measure with its own virtue. Thaddeus Stevens stepping back from the key concept of racial equality for the sake of political pragmatism. And so forth.

I suppose watching this for an averagely educated American is like watching films set in World War II for Europeans: you know a lot about the background already, you hope for a new take on it, revel in recognition of characters and situations, and sometimes you flinch when a completely obvious point is illustrated a tad too much. As a non-American, most details were new to me, so I could thoroughly enjoy this abbreviated history of Lincoln’s maybe most lasting achievement. I was sometimes wondering whether the fact that I could rather easily follow what was going on meant that for Americans that must be too simplified? But then again: it still is a piece of entertainment that needs to tweak the narrative into a linear cinematic structure, and few people do that more authoritatively than Spielberg and his writers.

So I could enjoy without guilt Tommy Lee Jones’s Mr Stevens and his rather … undiplomatic rhetoric. I could savour Daniel Day Lewis’ smooth voice and perennial urge for story-telling (certainly most annoying for his staff and cabinet). I admired the ease with which Southern (was that “confederate”?) emissaries were handled by Northern  (was that “union”?) military. The scenes in the Senate were actually a bit too much, the tone of the discussions there were almost as ludicrous as in today’s real-life British parliament, so that certainly was an invention of the screenwriters, right?

While “Lincoln” takes a rather personal Lincoln perspective, it also hints occasionally at the darker sides of the going-ons, such as his relationship  to his wife (Sally Field) or atrocities the Civil War brought about even in the late stages. I do not blame the film for holding back on this, as the story is not about assessing Lincoln’s legacy. It’s about how one specific piece of legislation was conned and bribed and argued through the legislature, and as such – as a politics procedural – it was very enjoyable.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lincoln_2011/

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