Lincoln – The Movie, The Man

Abraham Lincoln   :

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.



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13 thoughts on “Lincoln – The Movie, The Man

  1. I’m holing it’ll be in theaters for a bit. I’m planning on seeing Argo this evening, and Lincoln is on my very short list. It’s turning out that the end of this year is a good one for cinema. I’d also like to see Flight and Skyfall, and, of course, next month brings the first of the Hobbit films. I’m willing to bet that the awards next year are going to get very catty and will disappoint a lot of people.

  2. This is kinda like Apollo 13 or Titantic – you know how it ends, yet it is tense, dramatic and riviting.

    The performances are amazing (especially Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones) and the editing, photography, wardrobe and sets really make you feel as if you’re in 1860’s and it’s a bit of culture shock to depart theater and realize it’s 2012.

    Some movies are simply awesome. This is one to add to that short list.

  3. I am presently midways through a great history book that discusses the role of Black American soldiers in depth in the chapters devoted to the Civil War. The book was written by John Hope Franklin and is called “From Slavery to Freedom.”

    My wife was helping her best friend clean a rental house that had been left to her by her late husband, and the former occupants, a black family, had left several books, all of which I inherited. Another of the books was, “The Sable Arm” and was a history of the black soldiers part in the Civil War. Both are excellent books and well worth a read.

    I am closer to the civil war than most, my paternal grandfather, a Swiss immigrant, was a member of the 19th Ohio Infantry.

  4. I’ve seen both. ARGO is excellent. Lincoln is outstanding. I’ll be seeing it a second time or holding out of the DVD.

    Sally Fields also gave an superb performance.

    The ending is stellar with Tommy Lee Jones, especially for those who know nothing of Thaddeus Stevens (don’t look now…so you will be surprised).

    It was interesting to learn that Robert Lincoln was present at Appomattox.

  5. Two books I have been reading as part of my studies are Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara and Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson. Both are great reads! I will look forward to Lincoln! Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. The greatest gift one can give is to die for a friend. But Abe Lincoln died for a nation. Extraordinary man lived in this time that changed the course of America. Its unfortunate that when great things happen,great men die for their sacrifice.

    Looks like the fiscal cliff is so small compared to this. Why does it have to be so difficult for minor things today?

  7. Just got back from Argo & dinner. It was better than I hoped it would be. I’m glad they put that introductory narrative in the beginning, ’cause I don’t think many Americans are aware of the skuloduggery that led to the restoration of the shah and the roots of the revolution.

    I was also surprised at how many laughs I got out of it – mostly from the dialogue and all the off-center remarks. Now I wonder if someone is going to go ahead and resurrect the “Argo” movie within the movie – that is a real script, based on Roger Zelazny’s Lord Of Light (which happens to be my least favorite of his books). I think my favorite line was from Tony Mendez: “If my boss ever had an intelligent thought in his head it would die of starvation.” That sounds so descriptive of just about any Republican these days.

    Anyway, it’s going to be Lincoln on Sunday.

    It just occurred to me that of all the movies out now I’d like to see (if I had both time and money), most of them have one-word titles: Argo, Lincoln, Flight, Skyfall, Hitchcock… Then there’s the Hobbit movie in a couple weeks to break the string.

  8. Occupyalways said “The greatest gift one can give is to die for a friend. But Abe Lincoln died for a nation”.

    I agree ! Unfortunately – Today’s politicians would not give up the possible loss of their own Senate or House Seat ..for the advancement of a Nation and the resolution of the most critical problems it may face for generations.

  9. I saw Flight. It is not as the trailer indicates. It is about alcoholism and one man’s battles with the disease. Denzel Washington is a co-producer but any noted actor could have played that role,.. and I think a couple of those folk could have played it better frankly. That is it. The flight stuff occupies but a few minutes. SkyFall…not bad at all for a Bond flick..but will admit the Bond “girls’ .as they were called years ago. are not the same as one latter Bond “girl” Halie Berry or the most noted Ursula Andress .

    Good movie viewing!!!!!!!

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