Note: The following discusses the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the context of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and may be considered to contain spoilers for that film*.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is a mostly great movie, filled with enthralling scenes and brilliant performances, dragged down by a script (by Tony Kushner) that’s unfocused at inopportune times, wanting to focus on the President’s fight for the 13th Amendment yet repeatedly distracted by more traditional, predictable biopic fare. For the most part, Kushner and Spielberg manage to juggle the two well enough, painting the lawmaking, the war talk, and Abe’s life as vitally intertwined.
Then comes the end, the latest in the long line of Spielberg’s trademark Epilogues That Don’t Know When to Quit**. The amendment passes the House, the war comes to an end, we see the toll both struggles have taken on the President… and then the damn thing just keeps going. After some winding-down dialogue and some pensive visuals, the script worms its way to the inevitable scene where Abe heads out to the theater, hoping for a relaxing evening.
There’s some nifty tinkering with expectations here as the film cuts not to the Lincolns enjoying a comedy but instead to an opera viewed by Tad Lincoln. The joke is entirely cinematic: sure, we’ll end in a theater, just not the one you think. It’s clever – and wholly unnecessary, as it still leads the viewer along the wink-nudge path with which it attempts to toy.
That wink-nudge path, ugh. It’s a nuisance. There’s no need for it, and Kushner and Spielberg seem to realize this, allowing the film to jump backward from Lincoln’s death to his second inaugural address, with remarks about the war’s end that are quite fitting to the film. Why not just cut the assassination and end with that speech? Did the filmmakers fear audiences would rise up in protest if a movie about Abraham Lincoln didn’t include his famous demise? Of course we wouldn’t, because we already know it, and because it has no bearing on the bulk of the plot.
This, I suppose, is the big question: in cases where a subject’s death is a key part of their legend, do we need to that death included in a biography to make it valid? In some cases, yes, if the story is one of inevitable tragedy, or if the plot focuses mainly on events tied to the subject’s demise. But in this case, no. Not even remotely. Abraham Lincoln’s life is so full, his biography filled with so much detail, one could tell an entire story, start to finish, about a single episode in his life without requiring any of the history book bold entries.
Which is what Lincoln comes very close to achieving. It’s named after the man but details very little of his life and so much of others’. Taking him to the theater is simply unnecessary.
*(Why the spoiler alert? Despite all the “don’t tell me how it ends!” jokes, I believe revealing how a biography handles well-known history can have the same impact as revealing a plot point of a fictional story.)
**(I have defended many of these epilogues. But even I have my limits.)