Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin(book)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, portrays Abraham Lincoln’s masterful and determined political leadership in passing the 13th Amendment through the US House of Representatives and abolishing slavery by law.
As my memory serves, Abraham Lincoln was a tall and skinny man who spoke eye to eye from whatever lofty podium to whatever man, woman or child in front of him. Perhaps the opening scene, where soldiers of the Civil War bayonet and stomp one another in hand to hand combat, serve to remind audiences that when Mr. Lincoln spoke, he had to first overcome the heartache of a trampled people in order to be heard. To do this, the former President often tells a story that ends with a soft smile to invite the listener to come closer to his meaning.
Before President Lincoln meets the camera’s lens face on, two black Union soldiers stand before his shadowy presence as he sits atop a wooden railway platform. They tell the man of their hopes after the war is over. President Lincoln (expertly embodied by Daniel-Day Lewis as weary, worn and regal) slowly comes into being as the man we all recognize. Simultaneously homespun and larger than life, Lincoln asks how they’re doing. One talks smart, making it clear his days of subservience are over. “I don’t like the smell of boot wax and I can’t cut no hair.” Lincoln responds with a story about his unruly, wire brush-like hair and how he wishes he could find a barber who could deal with it. They have to laugh. He makes his point. He is easy in their company but he won’t be intimidated.
Then, two young white soldiers – boys really – step in and thank him for his speech on the Gettysburg battlefield dedicating the National Cemetery. Mr. Lincoln wonders aloud, “Could you hear me?” By way of an answer, they recite the few paragraphs he spoke. At this point, shivers ran up my spine. Tears flowed down my cheeks. The black soldier who was fresh with his words finishes the last of Lincoln’s address. Boys, really, who had only heard the speech once, committed his words to memory. Quintessential Spielberg; there’s no way the soldiers’ memory is that sharp, but strong emotion runs straight through the scene, and from my own past. I could hear my own father’s voice teaching me those words. As a girl, I remembered how hard it was to memorize them. And yet they never left my mind. Years later, as I stood in the Lincoln Memorial, I heard my father’s voice in my head as I read the inscription carved in stone declaring a new birth of freedom. So, these boys –looking up from below, still at eye level and ready for the challenges of their day – set the mood and anticipation for Lincolnto bring forth its point.
It is, after all, a story well known: Lincoln freed the slaves.
But it is also, after all, a story not so well known. It wasn’t the war that freed them. It was a wrangled effort, led by Lincoln and voted to victory by a cantankerous House of Representatives.
It is not well known that the Constitution of the United States of America needed to be amended to abolish slavery. The war wouldn’t have done it. In order for slaves to be free under the law and not just by the say of Lincoln, who held war president powers, an amendment to the Constitution was needed. Lincoln shows the former President as an adroit politician leading and winning a bitter fight in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery before the South surrendered. Without the 13th Amendment – that is, without being bound to a U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery upon return to the union – the Southern states could have retained slavery when the war was over. This point the film makes clear.
Lincoln is a helluva story, not to be missed because it’s a great film nor because it’s an excellent history lesson. There are lots of facts to be checked. It’s the story within the story to which the film draws attention and sets off fresh thoughts about the inner workings of our democracy that make it an important film to experience. The underlying message about the democratic process as a stage for endemic opposition upon which a dedicated reach for reconciliation of opposites plays for all seasons can be easily overlooked.
When Lincoln asks his wife’s black maid, “What will your people do once free?” she answers, “I don’t know what we’ll do with freedom, but free comes first. I am a mother of a son who fought and died for the Union. That’s the way I’ll remember myself.”
“The door. It opens.” shouts Thaddeus Stevens to a fellow congressman knocking at his office door. Metaphorically, this small piece of dialog captures the accomplishment of the 13th Amendment. The film plays Abraham Lincoln’s use of power close to the vest but never in doubt. It is Lincoln’s willingness to use his power as he sees fit that opens the door for many tough arguments to follow. What people will do with the freedom the amendment provides will result in many struggles for identity. Lincoln felt driven to open the door, to let things happen. He never let the mantle of authority drop, not to joke and certainly not to please.
1865 is a bare 100 years before 1965, a time when the fight for civil rights was in the streets again and dividing North and South. Separate, but equally challenged. Not as bloody a fight as the Civil War, but bloody enough to spur the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964. At the turn of the century, women fought for the right to vote; 1920 brought the 19th Amendment prohibiting denial to vote on basis of sex but not before women went to jail in protest.
Today, one more time, a struggle for freedom presents itself. Many of the prejudices exhorted in Lincoln about black people in 1865 resound in current opposition to gays and lesbians. Archaic but modern, many civil rights issues remain the same. The Dalai Lama says compassion is the true normal for humans so when we’re drawn into heated oppositions, the return to center is what’s called for.
The cinematography in Lincoln exemplifies Lincoln’s ability to hold the outside at bay while he holds our attention on his intent: compassion. Behind every window of darkened, often candlelit rooms and just beyond every outside scene, a white light glows and blocks the view. Lincoln’s lanky presence, brief words and lengthy stories lie within a dazzling brilliance, intensifying the masterful interiority of his vision. His single-minded campaign to abolish slavery effects an historical victory for the world and ‘the unborn to come’ like a spotlighted, center stage act. In the end, the light from another world comes in, shining upon his frail body lying dead in the center of a group of men in dark suits who will carry on. However, as the victory vote came in that day so long ago in January, Lincoln stands amidst long, filmy white curtains filled with bright late light, holding his son under his arm and looking out a window where there’s nothing but the future to see.
Free is not an identity. It’s a beginning of many searches by people who are free to argue fiercely in a ‘country where the fox and the hare say good night to one another’ (P.L. Travers).