Thanks to the magic of home video, I finally got a chance to watch Spielberg’s Lincoln — which is not, despite its title and its director, a sprawling epic biopic. It’s actually, for the most part, a tightly focused docudrama about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, in which Abraham Lincoln employs every political tool in the book, up to and including bald-faced lies and outright bribes, in order to secure the crossover votes in the House of Representatives necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery. The story ends with Mr. Lincoln leaving a gathering of his political associates in order to join Mrs. Lincoln for a night out at the theater, in a lovely moody shot of the President walking down a darkened White House corridor toward the lighted doorway at the end.
Unfortunately, the movie goes on for several minutes after that.
We get the assassination — well, actually, we get an audience at a different performance in another theatre being told that the President has just been shot. (I suppose this was meant to be clever film-making, but it felt to me like a bait-and-switch. Mileage, of course, may vary.) We get Mary Todd Lincoln weeping at the deathbed. We get “Now he belongs to the ages.” We get a final Inspiring Voiceover Montage. And I’m damned if I know why the movie needed any of that stuff, unless it was for the historical enlightenment of the three or four people in Outer Mongolia who don’t already know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a play at Ford’s Theater.
The whole thing reminded me of another movie with an equally unnecessary ending — First Knight, the Arthurian film with Richard Gere as Lancelot and Sean Connery as King Arthur. Except for the assumption that any woman in possession of her right mind could possibly prefer Gere† to Connery, First Knight was a perfectly serviceable film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight of the Cart, and would have worked just fine if they’d left it at that. But the film-maker stuck a Mort D’Arthur sequence onto the end of it, presumably because nobody involved trusted the audience to remember what was going to happen a few years down the fictional road.
One of the good things about being in the business of making novels and short stories instead of films is that we can get away with putting a bit more trust in the intelligence — and the literacy — of our audience.
†Of that vintage, at least. Perversely, as Gere’s gotten older he’s acquired a kind of sleazy shopworn charm that is attractive in its own right. But I digress.