Monday, November 19, 2012

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is an excellent movie that all Americans should see!

The story is as fitting for today as it was nearly 150 years ago.  The film-making is suburb with great direction by Spielberg and Academy-award worthy performances from Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens.  The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

The movie concerns efforts made by the Lincoln Administration to gather enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the resolution on the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The resolution has already been approved by the Senate, but must be approved by the House before it can be presented to the States for ratification.  The back-room campaign to gain votes from the Northern War Democrat minority becomes the focus of this political thriller. 

The story begins with Lincoln explaining the problem of ending slavery as the war ground to its inevitably conclusion.  The  Emancipation Proclamation, which  "freed" slaves in those parts of Confederate states not under control by the Union was passed as a military measure based on Lincoln's war powers.  When the war ended, the legality of slavery would return to the states.  Lincoln faced a one month window to put in place a permanent solution.  His time constraint was based on end of the war and more immediately the end of the lame-duck period for Democratic representatives.

13th Amendment resolution
with Lincoln's Signature
With the stage set, we see Lincoln weave his way through a political minefield of different agendas to the dramatic vote in the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865.  Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) hires three shady, political con-men  (played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader) to lure Democrats defeated in the November 1864 election to vote for the amendment. They promise the politicians patronage jobs once they leave the Congress.  Their efforts to cajole these men meets with some success. Seward doesn't want Lincoln to be involved.  However, as the ballot approaches, the administration is still short of votes.  Lincoln enlists the help of Thaddeus Stevens for some arm-twisting and enters the process himself in the last hours to try to convince a few reluctant Democrats.

The movie, like other political dramas, takes us into the dark behind the scenes street fights of government where lies and half-truths are weapons of choice.  The Machiavellian process clearly demonstrates that sometimes the end does justify the means.

Lincoln is the center of the drama and Daniel-Day Lewis is more than up to the task.  He becomes Lincoln.  The image Lewis skillfully crafts is filled with stories from Lincoln's career as a simple backwoods lawyer and a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes to illustrate the points he is trying to make.  Lincoln is both a clever politician and a skillful teacher presenting the simple morality of the issues confronting him personally and publicly.

The movie does have some issues.  The idea that ending slavery is the reason that the war was fought has been debated by scholars. Most white northern soldiers fought to maintain the Union not to free the slaves.  Southerners opposed the economic, jurisdictional, and military invasion of their homeland.  The story touches briefly on Lincoln's changing attitudes about slavery, race relations, and the ability to "know each other."   The movie would also have benefited from subtitles indicating the cast of characters as used in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.

The story would have no honor without passage of the amendment.   The amendment is described in a tender moment between Stevens and his black housekeeper/mistress in bed.  The bald Stevens recites the sections:   

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Amendment was adopted on December 6, 1865.  On February 9, 1865, two months before Lee's surrender, Virginia became first former Confederate State to ratify the amendment.  Finally, on March 16, 1995, Mississippi became the last state to approve it  after having rejected it on December 5, 1865.

Spielberg's history lesson reveals that Lincoln, celebrated for freeing the slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation, should really be honored for the nobility of orchestrating the end of slavery with the 13th Amendment.

I wish that a mandatory screening could be presented to the inhabitants of the Capitol to show them how they could work together to solve the nation's problems.   

We rate this film,


No comments: