Lincoln, While Not Perfect, is Pretty Darn Good
Lincoln, the movie and the former president, is very good if not perfect. It opens with shots of the aftermath of the battle at Jenkins Ferry. The film then cuts to a shot of two African American soldiers asking an unseen man why they get less pay than the white soldiers and couldn’t advance to higher ranks like whites. The camera pulls back and we see that the two soldiers are talking to President Lincoln. The scene is believable because of our image of Lincoln as a man of the people who would walk among the troops and the performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln.
The action then jumps to 1865 and the main plot driver, the vote for the 13th Amendment that ends slavery, takes center stage.
Overall, the movie is compelling and not too wordy for a film about the passage of a Constitutional Amendment. The debate has its villains, the pro-slavery Democrats, and protagonists, the Radical Republicans lead by Thaddeus Stevens. Thaddeus Stevens is the radical of all radicals; he believes that slaves are humans and promotes racial equality. In the historical context of 1865, that was radical.
The pro-slavery Democrats were a minority in Congress in 1865. In the movie, they were obstructionists and would do whatever it took to prevent the passage of the 13th Amendment; for them the black man was clearly inferior to whites. (Yes, Democrats in the movie are similar to modern Republicans.) Scare tactics were used to persuade the white men in Congress to vote against the end for slavery. You see, slavery might lead to “black men getting the vote”. Even worse, as one Democrat points out, the passage of the amendment could lead women to get the vote.
President Lincoln was presented as a moralist that was always concerned with slavery. I am not sure that is entirely accurate. He hesitates to make slavery a central issue of his campaign and office and uses the end of slavery to push his main agenda, maintaining the union. However, there is evidence showing that Lincoln was concerned about slavery even as a child.
In the film, Lincoln is a man who deals with not only the great decisions of his day but has to deal with his family’s concerns. He was a common man with uncommon challenges and did what his moral compass indicated.
Lincoln is presented as a humorist who would tell stories as a way to win debates. Several times in the movie, those opposed to the 13th Amendment would balk when Lincoln started telling his humorous stories. They feared was that President Lincoln would use these stories and humor to gain support for his policies. The movie agrees with this assessment of Lincoln’s debating style.
The acting, from Lewis as Lincoln all the way down to minor cabinet members, was stellar. The sets and costumes were fine if not immaculate, and the music, though done by one of Hollywood’s most overrate composers John Williams, was mostly subdued and complementary to the movie.
A few minor quibbles. At one point, Secretary of State William Seward, played by David Strathairn, explains that Congress needs a two-thirds vote to pass amendments. First, the explanation of the amendment process did nothing to add to the film's drama. Second, it came across as a lecture. To the credit of the writer (Tony Kushner) and director (Steven Spielberg), the film mostly avoided a lecturing tone.
Another problem is the film’s ending. We all know about what happens to President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, but the film was not about Lincoln’s life, per se. The film was about the 13th Amendment and how Lincoln helped it pass. The film did not need its last scene.
While I am happy the movie showed how Lincoln bought votes for the 13th Amendment in exchange for federal offices, it could have shown more of his less heroic actions. One example is Lincoln’s illegal arrests of suspected secessionists in Maryland to maintain the state’s place in the Union. While Lincoln may have acted in the best interests of the nation, more specifics about the accusations by Democrats about Lincoln’s corruption could have enriched the film’s narrative.
The movie plays out many important themes. There are the obvious themes of race, class and gender. Also, there are the themes of legal equality versus racial equality. That debate continues today with arguments over affirmative action, segregation, and legal justice. Thaddeus Stevens deals well with this debate in the film.
Then there is the debate between incrementalism versus revolution. Should the anti-slavery forces in Congress call for racial equality or should they work incrementally by first passing the 13th Amendment to end slavery. That debate is relevant to Occupy movements and health care advocates, among others.
Rating: Full Price
While the movie is a great historical drama, and Daniel Day Lewis and much of the cast is Oscar worthy, it fails to transform our views or transport us to another place and time. While I wasn’t anxiously waiting for the end, I was far too often aware that I was watching a movie.
Ratings system from best to worst:
5. Pay full price, see it twice
4. Full Price
1. See it only if they pay you