Skip to main content

Four score and four stars ago...

The new Lincoln movie should be required viewing for every American. It's a brilliant, gritty, heroic, emotional, funny, intense, wise, intelligent look not necessarily at our famous President. But, rather, a methodical look at that much-hated political institution: Congress.

The real heart of the film is the manipulation and intrigue surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment...outlawing slavery, for those of you not up on the Constitution. It's Lincoln versus his own party. It's Lincoln versus anti-abolition Northern Democrats. It's Lincoln versus the clock as a peace commission has been sent from the Confederacy threatening to end the war--and bring slave states back into the Union--before abolition can be accomplished. It's a battle to get the votes needed. It's a family battle--Lincoln's real family and his cabinet. It's Lincoln versus himself as the humble man of the people fights his own conscience for doing what even he himself views as illegal in the name of the Union and winning the war.

If only the real Lincoln were like this! Daniel Day-Lewis is...perfect...as always. He plays a quiet, honest-but-scheming Lincoln who is a cross between a political tiger and a sweet old codger from the backwoods. The supporting cast is strong and solid--sometimes it falls apart into character acting. But Tommy Lee Jones is superb as hardcore abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens--who has to lie to Congress (like Lincoln) in the name of the greater good and achieving his real purpose. Sally Field even manages to convince us that Mrs. Lincoln wasn't the crazy, emotional wreck we know but a kind of counterweight to her husband.

Spielberg is Spielberg. The man can make dinosaurs have a human quality. It would be far too easy to say he did a great job with Lincoln the man. No, what he really succeeds at here is making American history come alive without the personal narrative we get in, say, Saving Private Ryan. No, this is just history performed. It's like being in a truly magnificent living history village. Making you consider things you never considered about the impact and gravity of the age.

The Civil War wasn't a civil war per se. In this version, Lincoln sees only a United States being assaulted by rebels within...his job is to navigate difficult legal obstacles. Being at war with an enemy despite that enemy still being American citizens. He already is engaged in the rebuilding and Reconstruction with the war not yet over. He wishes for healing, not punishment.

It makes you wonder what his next term might have been like if not for the assassination. I suppose this is the reason Spielberg includes it...despite critics feeling it is gratuitous. Really the film could end with (SPOILERS!) the Amendment passing. But my gut is that we're supposed to leave the theater with the backroom dealings in our mind and wondering what might have been if we'd had stronger leadership in giving slaves the right to vote and economic vitality that was being thrown around during the debate.

What if we'd gotten a Union-enforced black economy and political block instead of Jim Crow?

Comments