Friday, December 21, 2012


We saw Lincoln yesterday.  It's a fine piece of historical drama, with a flawlessly credible performance by Daniel Day Lewis of Lincoln as the most melancholy of men, faced with the dire situation of Americans at war with Americans, the evil of slavery--and a political gordian knot that must have seemed impossible to untie.  He made it his task to bring over a handful of men in the US Congress, by any means necessary, to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment in the interests of the country, no matter their personal convictions or the political risks.  It was, in part, a numbers game: first twenty, then finally thirteen Democratic votes were needed to pass the amendment.  

In the film's version of events, that task seemed impossible.  The end of slavery was viscerally opposed even by members of his own Republican party.  There was vitriol on both sides, much of it directed at the President himself.  The fury of today's partisanship pales in comparison; the language flung across the aisle was far more poisonous, far more intemperate--and also far more witty--than the paltry insults of our current batch of illiterates and incompetents.  I'm guessing that Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, did a great deal of research in the annals of Congress, and that the language he gives to his characters is authentic.  

As I read the film, Lincoln had to struggle not only with his political opponents--and allies--but also with his own inner demons.  His decision to, in effect, postpone a possible peace agreement and perpetuate the truly dreadful bloodshed (Spielberg does not spare us the detail) was soul-wrenching to a man whose every instinct was humanitarian.  Still, he made that decision, and concealed it by subterfuge from a Congress that wanted peace much more than it wanted the freedom of the slaves.  He made it at great cost to his personal conscience, but in what he believed to be the greater interest of the country and its future.

Spielberg's two-and-a-half hour epic made no concessions to the short attention span of today's movie audience.  His "action" scenes were few, and strictly needed in order to further our understanding of the President's predicament.  Kusher's screenplay was written for the intelligent adult, not the thirteen-year-old boy to whom many of our contemporary blockbusters are directed; his sometimes lengthy speeches were meaty and intricate in their argument, high-flown in language and diction.  No short-cuts in the story, no easy answers or trite conclusions.  The viewer was truly engaged, I thought, in the moral dilemmas and the political confrontations.  Without exception, the actors turned in compelling performances.  I have read objections that Sally Field's portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln was over-the-top.  I don't agree; to me, she was the perfect angry, intelligent, bereaved, and deeply suffering mother.  Tommy Lee Jones was outstanding as an aging curmudgeon who wielded his congressional power with pitiless determination.

Readers may recall that I linked a couple of days ago to my right-wing friend, Bob's reaction to the movie.  Once again, he and I are in profound disagreement--not, perhaps, about the powerful portrayal of President Lincoln as a man of impeccable courage and personal integrity, but of what we each saw to be his purpose.  Bob writes that "Lincoln fought heavy odds to preserve and strengthen the principles of personal liberty and responsibility, in contrast [to] Obama, the Democrats and most of the Republicans (especially the career politicians) [who] want to impose their ideology and their all-powerful central planning vision on us."  

I do not see it that way.  As I see it, Lincoln fought those heavy odds to serve the interests of the country, to preserve the Union, and to bring about the end to slavery as a matter of public policy, not personal responsibility.  As the movie makes clear, he was despised by his opponents as a tyrant (not unlike Obama, as Bob suggests,) bent on imposing his "ideology and his all-powerful central planning" on them.  He died, let's recall, at the hands of one reported to have shouted as he fired his pistol, "Sic semper tyrannis"--thus always to tyrants.  The film, certainly, is a portrait of personal courage and determination to overcome all odds.  But far from a paean to the primacy of personal responsibility, it celebrates a man dedicated to national over personal or regional interest.  Spielberg's Lincoln--and I believe the historical President, too--saw his job to be the representation not simply of those of privilege and power, but even the weakest and least influential members of the society of his time.  

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