“Lincoln” is a very good movie, but it might be improperly named. While it is true that our 16th president was the film’s central character, the real subject matter is the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery once and for all. This is no trifling matter, either. While Lincoln the man is an unchanging part of our history, the politics of his day are replaying themselves in dramatic irony this very instant. “Lincoln,” the movie, is a sobering contemporary reality check.
The all-star cast works together splendidly. Daniel Day Lewis does an admirable job of portraying the president. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln is charming and frustrating, precisely as the real First Lady must have been. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, the acerbic and flamboyant chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is genius. David Strathairn’s Secretary of State William Seward is appropriately affectionate and protective of the president. The remaining ensemble is convincing and compelling.
The writing is not without fault, however. Robert Lincoln’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pestering attempts to gain his father’s permission to enlist add nothing to the central story. His presence in the movie either adds fifteen unnecessary minutes or takes away valuable time from telling the main story. Take your pick. The film ends weakly, with the final scenes feeling more like a required closing statement than visionary cinema.
I suspect there will be some quibbling over historicity and cinematography here and there. Good film-making often requires choosing the more “screen-worthy” interpretation, not the most precisely accurate. Nevertheless, the integrity of the narrative is maintained. I did experience a sense of foreboding in the opening scene, in which Lincoln appeared to be posing for his own monument, complete with a halo of lighting above his head. It’s melodramatic and over the top. No doubt about it. There are many such moments throughout the film, but once I let it go and stopped worrying about it, they became a lot less noticeable, and in truth, the cosmetics are not a major concern.
What this film is about is the reality of politics. If I had to sum up the entire thing in one sentence, it would be this: “Men with noble intentions do ignoble things to achieve great things.” In this regard, Lincoln is a resounding success. There is one line, perhaps too early in the film to be appreciated, in which Lincoln is described as a dictator who suspends habeas corpus. It passes by and is gone, and sadly, many will miss it entirely. It is a point that should not be missed. Abraham Lincoln did suspend habeus corpus. He did so with the express purpose of arresting and detaining secessionists (enemy combatants?) without trial or due process.
The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation was also a huge risk for the president. It was an unprecedented interpretation of war powers. It was legally inconsistent. It relied on slippery language to accomplish a purpose without fully justifying itself. Watching Spielberg’s Lincoln explain himself to his Republican allies in a closed door meeting, I was shocked at how easily I fell in line with his reasoning. After all, the ends were worth it. His heart was in the right place.
So too did I follow the president through his shady connections with professional “lobbyists” whose jobs were to secure votes by any means necessary, including bribery and extortion. I applauded him for his determination to get the amendment passed, even if it meant breaking the law and putting himself at risk of impeachment.
Perhaps most pointedly, I applauded Lincoln’s strategy of extending the war for political gain. His agents delayed the arrival of Confederate representatives whose purpose was to negotiate peace. Even though the South was beaten and ready to end the war, the president extended it. He knowingly allowed young men to die in battles that did not need to be fought. He believed (rightly) that if the war ended, he would lose crucial votes and the 13th Amendment would not pass. He made the decision to trade lives for a political victory.
For the historically savvy, there is a powerful message hidden beneath the almost mythic presentation. We who have criticized President George W. Bush’s establishment of Guantanamo Bay to indefinitely detain enemies: what might we say if the war had ended with the freeing of all women in the Middle East from Sharia Law, honor killings, burqas, and genital mutilation? Would we honor him with a monument next to Lincoln’s? The man who ended women’s slavery in the Middle East? Would we make films about his courage to do what was right instead of what was legal?
What of President Nixon, who extended the Vietnam War to win re-election? Would we regard that potentially treasonous act as high moral reasoning if something far worse had been averted by his election? Do we really criticize Tricky Dick for extending the war and for the Watergate affair, or do we criticize him because they were means to ignoble ends?
It is, of course, no coincidence that “Lincoln” was released during the term of the first president to owe his position to President Lincoln. It’s not just a superficial connection, either. I wonder if, in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years, we will remember President Obama as the man who “caved in” to the Republican Party in 2010 to avoid a fiscal cliff, or the man who averted the Second Great Depression through savvy manipulation of his political enemies? Will he be the president who dragged his feet on repealing illegal government snooping and reining in Wall Street, or the president who avoided drawing attention to himself while the Republican Party turned on itself and imploded? Will he be the “Unmanned Drone President,” or the president who ended the neoconservative policy of occupation? The president who betrayed liberals by caving on the single-payer option, or the one who got his foot in the door of privatized insurance and paved the way for universal healthcare in the future?
Too often, we Americans think of politics as single-issue morality plays. If a president suspends habeus corpus, then he has violated the Constitution, and deserves to be impeached. If he has usurped questionable executive power, he is a tyrant. Only, that’s not true. Lincoln and Nixon and Bush all committed acts that earned them impeachment. Lincoln is rightly considered one of the greatest presidents in history, while Bush and Nixon are among the worst. Politics is a dirty game, and it has never been won by those who play fair.
In what I consider one of the most powerful moments in the film, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been a lifelong proponent of genuine equality under God, is convinced to lie for the greater good. When challenged by his Democratic foes on the point, he asserts that he is only in favor of equality under the law, and defends the position with wit and venom. “How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio? Proof that some men are inferior. Endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood. You are more reptile than man George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.”
It is rare that a blockbuster Hollywood movie has something profound to say about the real world. “Lincoln” is a glowing exception to the rule of the banal. When it stretches the truth, it does so to further the greater good of making its message clear and palatable. When it is melodramatic or overly emotional, it is to draw us in and make us want to hear what needs to be heard. The irony is that some critics are sure to nitpick it to death, and in doing so, they will prove the whole point: It’s not about making a perfect movie. It’s about making a movie that accomplishes good things. “Lincoln” accomplishes good things.