I saw the new movie Lincoln a few days ago and recommend it, which probably just puts me at the bottom of a long list of reviewers who already have.
As a film the only point I wish to make is that Daniel Day Lewis is extraordinary. For me he carried the movie because he was Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln that fit images I’ve developed through my reading of several books on the period. His movements, his voice and his personality all seemed Lincolnesque, aided by a weight loss by Lewis, a perfect makeup job and a good script.
For history buffs like me, accuracy is important and I’m happy to report the depiction is very close to historical accounts, not only to that of A Team of Rivals, its primary source, but other historical accounts as well. While no doubt most of the lines were created, the lines that are most significant in the movie are actual quotes, not something clever dreamed up by the script writer (*1). A surprising scene at the end of the movie is more rumored than proven fact, but it has not been disproved, either.
While a character study of Lincoln, the movie is about the passing of the 13th Amendment which cemented into law the freedom of former slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation had only been a presidential decree applying only to the states that had seceded, so it did not settle the issue and could have been overturned after the war without this amendment (*2).
That’s why Lincoln put so much energy and manipulative skill into getting this past and if you don’t already know, it was an unlikely feat which prompted “twisting arms and doling out projects, dangling offices in front of congressmen to help them make up their minds” (*3).
Watching Lincoln in action reminded me of President Lyndon Johnson who was a master of nitty-gritty politics. President Obama has not been, but not only has he read Team of Rivals but also chatted with author Doris Kearns Goodwin and other historians about it at a White House dinner. I do not know how much arm twisting I favor, but I would certainly like to see the President become more directly involved in key negotiations with Congress than he appeared to be in his first term.
The movie could hardly be more timely. We think of ourselves as polarized these days and we certainly are, but we are not to the point of taking up arms and killing each other. More Americans soldiers were killed during the Civil War than any other war, close to the number of all of our other wars combined. And we killed each other.
I think of it as the price belatedly paid for our constitutional solution which established our nation but allowed the preservation of slavery in the process. From the perspective of that life and death struggle, in which the union did prevail at such a high cost over those who insisted ultimate sovereignty remained in each state, the secessionists of our time seem like children acting out.
Our divisions are not nearly as deep as at the time of the Civil War. However, we do face huge political/economic problems that do not afford simple solutions, like winning a war. Complexity combined with misinformation has produced an intractable polarization. A Gordian Knot.
The irony in all of this is despite the loss of some of our previous economic advantages in the world, we still have many things in our favor if we could only overcome our ongoing political stalemate. Oddly perhaps, I am reminded of the words of President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The difference today is the only thing we have to fear is ourselves.
(*1) For me the most memorable political movie line that was made up by a script writer was “follow the money” in All the Presidents’ Men (1976), about Watergate.
(*2) The 13th Amendment freeing the slaves is supremely ironic. Shortly prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, Congress passed a 13th amendment which would have had the opposite effect. To assuage the fears of southerners, it guaranteed that the federal government would not interfere with a state’s laws regarding slavery. It lost its chance at becoming law because the Civil War broke out.
(*3) As quoted from President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, William Lee Miller.