We saw [easyazon_link identifier=”B00BOLE7X0″ locale=”US” tag=”passi0c2-20″]Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”[/easyazon_link] on Sunday in a suburban theatre that was disappointingly less than a third full, probably because it was more of a shopping or travel day for most. Lincoln is an imperative see, depicting the political machinations behind the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. Lincoln saw the Amendment as the fulfillment of his Emancipation Proclamation and wanted the Amendment passed while he could get a majority in the House which was comprised only of Union state representatives at the time. While negotiations to end the war had commenced with representatives of the Confederacy, Lincoln, with a keen politician’s sense of timing, knew he had a now-or-never chance of a majority vote in the House.Over at Powerline, Scott W. Johnson has summarized and commented on a number of reviews. I remarked yesterday that Daniel Day Lewis deserves the Oscar. In “Finally, an honest Abe,” Harold Holzer’s New York Post assessment agrees, as Johnson points out, with “the perfection of Daniel Day Lewis’s performance as Lincoln. It is a performance of surpassing beauty. At the end of the film, one feels gratified to have had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in Lincoln’s company. One is struck by the sheer largeness of spirit on display. Here there is no pettiness. Here there is no triviality. Here one is elevated.”
I daresay Lincoln is a masterpiece. Spielberg worked seven years on this film. It’s shot with eloquence, using gloomy, foreboding tones. This depicts not only the pervasive melancholy of the Lincolns’ personal grief from the loss of son Tad, but also of the nation wearied by the almost incomprehensible losses of war. Daniel Day Lewis delivers a superlative portrait of a literal and figurative giant among men, ranging from down-home country story-telling lawyer to sophisticated political machinator. Canny and shrewd, Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation as economic leverage against the Confederacy, and then forced the 13th Amendment through using a combination of personal charisma and fast-paced trading. Woven within the political story are the personal relationships: tender and loving father to Will, conflicted by equal parts love and exasperation with spouse Mary (beautifully played by Sally Field), and challenged parent of young adult Robert. This “Lincoln” by Daniel Day Lewis is quite simply, stunning.
I was struck by the similarities to the circumstances in which the nation now finds itself. The 13th Amendment was not a foregone conclusion to the Emancipation Proclamation, as many have believed. While it had passed in the Senate, the House debate was contentious and threatened to derail the process the Emancipation Proclamation had set in motion. Holzer’s Post article tells us, “The [political] negotiations took place during a lame-duck session, and the drama has many parallels to today. Instead of the fiscal cliff, they faced the racial cliff. And for anyone who thinks that politics are dirtier work today, the backroom deals Lincoln made should dispel notions of a ‘simpler time.’ He offered judgeships, promised to undo railroad regulations in New Jersey — anything he could do to get a vote. Honest Abe was cutting corners.”
Running the business of the country from a cluttered White House office in which he met with the public and his cabinet, to a 19th century communications room with multiple telegraphs, to making personal visits to key parties by carriage in the gloom of nighttime Washington, Lincoln balanced the prestige of his position with the pragmatism of the circuit jurist to lead the country out of the old ways and into the new. One of the most compelling soliloquies contains the President’s description of the circular legalities through which the Emancipation Proclamation could only stand with a constitutional amendment’s protection. With philosophic brilliance, the script has Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln school his cabinet on Euclid’s theorem in an attempt to get them to grasp the moral equivalency of freedom under the law for all.
And thus, it’s how things came to be. Bullied all along by Thaddeus Stevens, in an impressive performance by Tommy Lee Jones, the House of Representatives submits to pass the 13th Amendment by a marginal vote after thundering oration and behind the scenes deal-making by the fierce abolitionist and others. The complicated web of promises and threats is tempered with comic relief by the sometimes hilarious verbal scuffles during debates on the floor.
Speaking at the Gettysburg 149th anniversary ceremonies, Spielberg said he wanted to bring the real Lincoln to life after one and half centuries. Doris Kearns Goodwin, upon whose biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (film tie in edition), the film is based, described Lincoln as having “the rare wisdom of a temperament that consistently displayed an uncommon magnanimity to those who opposed him.” Spielberg chooses to honor this assessment by ending the film with the deeply moving oratory from Lincoln’s second inaugural in a sweeping scene:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
This movie deserves high honor. Very well done.