The other half and I finally saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln over the Thanksgiving weekend, at our usual spot at the Edwards Renaissance 14 theaters in Alhambra. The film has an eye-caching pedigree with the involvement of high-profile talent such as Spielberg himself, of course, along with screenwriter Tony Kushner (openly gay playwright of the Pulitzer-prize winning Angels in America). The cast includes 2-time Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln; fellow Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones as the celebrated anti-slavery activist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA); Joseph Gordon-Levitt (from Looper and The Dark Knight Rises) as the Lincoln’s eldest son, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and Gloria Reuben (television's E.R.) as free Black woman who works in the White House. The story of the film is adapted from material in the Pulitzer-prize winning Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; the book is about Lincoln’s cabinet which famously contained many of the same men who he defeated for the Presidency in 1860.
The movie based on the book is focused on a very short 3-month window of Lincoln’s life in 1865, a period when three historic events of significant national import happened: the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution discharged from Congress and sent to the States for ratification, the Civil War (“War of Northern Aggression” or “War Between the States”) came to an end, and President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by a Confederate assassin.
The vast majority of the film’s duration is spent depicting the events around the first of these events. In fact, some people have really said the movie should be called The 13th Amendment instead of Lincoln. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States and thus insured that the Confederate way of life that included profiting from the involuntary servitude and dehumanization of millions of people would cease to exist once the Civil War came to an end. As someone whose skin color would mark me as a slave if I had been born in 1818 instead of 1968, I appreciate the significance of the 13th Amendment and am pleased that Hollywood found this topic a subject for a major motion picture released (deliberately) in the heart of the year-end gauntlet known as Oscar season. As a dilettante of American history, I am somewhat chagrined that almost no mention of the 14th Amendment is made, although its penumbra can be seen in one of the critical moments of high drama in the film. If you know the historical context or understand the legal implications of the crucial debate between the main proponent and opponent of the anti-slavery measure on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives right before the vote, the rhetorical decision made (to accept formal equality between the races versus actual or social equality) has a particularly piquant resonance.
That being said, although Lincoln works as a educational history lesson about important topics that all Americans should know it doesn’t really work as a movie, i.e. filmed entertainment. Day-Lewis is astonishing as Lincoln, he completely embodies the part and almost eerily looks like history come to life. However, at its core Lincoln is about politics and the men who practice it. The passage of the 13th Amendment clearly would not have happened without Lincoln’s insistence, cajoling and persuasion. But the film also shows that the end of slavery in the United States was also accomplished through appeals to sheer greed, political cowardice and blatant bribery. I believe this unsanitized view of history is a good thing, but I’m sure there are others who will object that it tarnishes the legacy of the person who by universal acclaim is one of the Top 3 Presidents of all time.
Lincoln demonstrates how presidents can use their powers to do good and that perhaps in politics the ends do justify the means. (It is particularly interesting to view Lincoln in the context of our current political partisan moment since back then the Republicans were the party fighting for the rights of the minority and the Democrats were the party staunchly committed to maintaining the saliency of white privilege—oh how things can change in a century!)
Going to see Lincoln is something that you should go do, and you will be edified for doing so. I’m just not so sure how many people when they are making their weekend’s entertainment plans think to themselves “I think I want to do something edifying this weekend!”
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Running Time: 2 hours, 29 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
Release Date: November 16, 2012.
Viewing Date: November 24, 2012.
Overall Grade: A/A- (3.75/4.0).