I’m looking forward to seeing Spielberg’s Lincoln sometime next week. The following fine review of the film, and the man, by Infidel753, is cross-posted from his website of the same name, Infidel753.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the must-see movie in theaters right now, and not only because Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the great war President is unlikely ever to be surpassed. The movie is worthy of its daunting subject matter — some of the most pivotal events and people of our country’s history. And it’s a profound antidote to the simplistic moral certainties often found in movies (and politics), showing us the messiness and compromise of real-world politics and the ambiguity and uncertainty of serious moral questions.
To make sure we never forget the reality of the Civil War, the film opens with a battle scene, an ugly, bloody, grunting, hand-to-hand affair of desperate men struggling in mud while trying to bayonet each other to death. The role of black soldiers in the Union war effort is repeatedly emphasized. Black Americans were not mere passive beneficiaries of the abolitionists’ work; these men, strongly motivated for obvious reasons, did much of the fighting that saved the country.
The movie actually covers just the last four months of Lincoln’s life, and focuses on his effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery. Somewhat jarringly, the party labels attached to progressives and reactionaries at that time were the reverse of today — Lincoln and the abolitionists were Republicans, while the conservatives and fervent opponents of black freedom were Democrats.
As the story opens, the Senate has already passed the Amendment, but reaching the needed two-thirds majority in the House promises to be a struggle. To win the necessary Democratic votes, Lincoln authorizes any tactic necessary. Sleazy men are engaged as go-betweens; lucrative patronage jobs are offered to lame-duck Congressmen who will soon need employment; money changes hands under shady circumstances. Lincoln personally goes to great lengths to suppress news of a Confederate peace overture, a development which could undermine support for the Amendment. It’s all underhanded and dirty, a perversion of democracy. Today we’re comfortable asserting that no political cause, no matter how righteous, could justify such tactics — but what if that cause were the abolition of slavery?
Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones is a joy to watch in the role) faces a moral dilemma familiar to progressives today. Not only an abolitionist, he believes in full equality of the races — in those days, a radical position few people would entertain. The Amendment cannot afford to be associated with such an “extremist” stance; it would lose in a landslide if Congress believed it would lead not only to the end of slavery but eventually to full equality for blacks. Stevens is eventually persuaded to repudiate his true beliefs on the House floor, for the greater good of passing the Amendment. Today we know he was right, and his sudden “moderation” sticks in our throats as much as in his, especially since we know it took another century for effective civil and voting rights for black Americans to be won. Yet if Stevens had insisted on speaking out for what we all now know to be truth and justice, the Amendment might well have failed, and an achievable milestone been lost.
The risk of the perfect being the enemy of the good comes up again and again. During one raucous House debate, a conservative Congressman invokes the slippery slope — if slavery is abolished, what else may follow? Votes for blacks? Intermarriage? One cannot avoid thinking of the slippery-slope arguments raised today by opponents of gay equality.
Lincoln himself is at times genuinely torn over the Confederate offer of a negotiated peace. End the war and its horrible slaughter now (at that point the Civil War had already cost more than 150 times as many American lives as the whole Iraq war), or press on for total victory and get the Amendment passed, at the cost of even more lives, but winning results that would at least make the sacrifice worthwhile?
Lincoln’s conflict with his wife and elder son over the latter’s desire to enlist in the army is a mere sub-plot here, but brings out enough emotion and moral struggle for a whole movie of its own.
The film’s look draws us effortlessly into the world of 1865. Everything is brown and sepia and murky; cigars are smoked constantly and almost everyone over 30 looks unhealthy; the fussy over-complicated drab clothing and the variegated and spectacularly ugly beards evoke the dawn of the dreary Victorian age. You are there, you are in 1865.
The script is a triumph and will make you want to see the movie again just to make sure you didn’t miss anything. So many movies these days spend millions on special effects, only to be sunk by weak writing; here, the spoken word gets its proper priority.
Performances are flawless across-the-board, and Day-Lewis is already considered a strong Oscar candidate. Lincoln apparently had a penchant for lengthy metaphors and anecdotes which sometimes baffled his listeners, and he could be quick to anger when provoked. You get the real Lincoln here, good and bad.
The question of whether Lincoln was gay, as some real evidence suggests, is not raised. In this film, it would have been a distraction. Those who are aware of the possibility will see the irony that he fought for the liberation of one brutalized part of the American people, at a time when the liberation of his own was unimaginable and would remain so for a century.
In our own time when politics is so clogged with absolutist and no-compromise attitudes, it’s well worth being so effectively reminded that not all questions have easy answers, and that doing the right thing can sometimes be not only difficult but actually repugnant.