Lincoln

There are people who make history and then there are people like Lincoln, figures who are able to rise above the assumptions and prejudices of their times to advance history in a completely unseen direction.  I would put Lincoln in the same category as Alexander the Great, Augustus, Charlemagne, Napoleon and a maybe a handful of others who became not just historical figures but icons that are venerated throughout the ages.  He and Washington are probably the only two such figures in American history.

My guess is that Lincoln is the most biographied president in history.  And yet for those of us who don’t study him, it is hard to think of him as a person.  We’re too used to seeing him on money or going to Washington and looking at that huge statue.  He pops up in movies and on TV all the time in projects ranging from the silly to the solemn.  Usually he is depicted as a font of gentle wisdom.  What was he really like?  Is it wise for us to want to peek behind the machinery of this particular American myth and find that one of our greatest heroes has flaws like anybody else?

Steven Spielberg, our country’s greatest mythmaker, takes on the task of humanizing Lincoln.  The movie opens shortly after Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis, has won reelection and the Union is beginning to launch the final campaigns in the war.  Lincoln comes to believe that it will be necessary to pass the 13th amendment, the one that will end slavery in America during the lame duck congress, while he can still argue that the measure will hasten the end of the hostilities.  So he and his most trusted aid, Secretary of State William Seward, played by David Strathairn, navigate the difficult process of garnering enough votes.  The first step is to promise Democratic congressmen who lost their reelection bids government jobs under the table in exchange for their votes.  Seward handles this.

Then Lincoln must secure the support of the conservative wing of his own party by allowing Republican Party founder Preston Blair, played by Hal Holbrook, to travel to Richmond in order to open up secret peace talks with the Confederates.  But this can’t be generally known or they would lose all their moderate votes.  Plus, Lincoln needs to keep the radical abolitionists, who are personified by Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, from scaring away moderate votes by engaging in fiery rhetoric not only about emancipation but also about enfranchisement and equality. 

Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner do a pretty good job of depicting these complicated machinations in an understandable way.  But their main accomplishment is in making Lincoln the icon into Lincoln the man.  Daniel Day Lewis plays Lincoln as a gangly figure, whose clothes never quite fit and whose hair is never combed.  And yet he always has a funny story, or an inspiring metaphor.  This man is a born leader, genuinely interested in the people around him.  He rarely gets angry but you do not want to disappoint him.  He is also somewhat aware of his place in history and the price it costs him personally.  People love him and are in awe of him and that separates him from others. 

The performances are great all around.  Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, his grieving, mentally unstable wife.  Strathairn turns in an exemplary performance as Lincoln’s trusted aid, who is willing to tell the president things he doesn’t want to hear.  And Tommy Lee Jones is great as a fanatical abolitionist who usually employs his wit to belittle his opposition but who must control himself to get the amendment passed.

Lincoln is a pretty film with great cinematography and costumes.  This is an era before central heating is in widespread use, so everybody, including the president, is wrapped in shawls and housecoats.  The interiors are dark at night because the only illumination is candlelight.  It looks very realistic.

As a genre, political films can be tricky.  It is a story, after all, that is moved along almost solely by dialog.  This can be tedious if you don’t have the right actors and a great script.  But the story is important too and there are few that are more inspiring than this one.  This is a story of a politician who when faced with the choice of doing the righteous thing and the expedient one, chose the righteous.

And whenever that happens the angels weep with joy.

//

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