Lincoln’s Abiding Challenge

Review by Leonard Freeman

Directed by Stephen Spielberg
DreamWorks/20th Century-Fox

Audiences are clearly moved by director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. At film’s end, as credits start to roll, there is an almost stunned silence. It is not as if you’ve seen an actor portraying Lincoln as much as an experience of Lincoln himself with a deserved awe and a step back from the palpable brilliance, conviction, caring, sacrifice and burden of the man. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis is known for throwing himself into his roles: Sally Field, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln, says she received many notes and memos from “Lincoln” before filming began. Day-Lewis virtually channels the President, from his high-pitched voice to his gait and idiosyncratic sense of humor.

Lincoln is a lonely man. He knows it deep in his bones. Grief has been a part of his life since he decided that he and Mary would leave their dying son Willie alone while they participated in a required, crucial mid-war White House reception. His nights are often sleepless, torn by thoughts and emotions, and his dreams haunt his waking hours. He has a dream of himself on a boat moving at incredible speed through a night sky toward some end, “keenly aware of my aloneness.” He usually has the boat dreams before battles, notes Mary, who sees herself as his “soothsayer,” but this one, with its speed — when he usually sees himself as a “deliberate” mover whom others decry as “Lincoln the doddler, Lincoln the inveterate compromiser”: this one, she decides, must be about the slavery amendment.

Based largely on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the film focuses on four months, January through April 1865, just after Lincoln’s second election in the waning days of the Civil War. The President has decided to push for the passage of a 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that will outlaw slavery “for all time,” at the same time that he attempts to bring an end to the terrible war.

There are two problems. First, there can be no recognition that the South is a separate nation. It is not Southern states that are “out of the union,” but only people within them who have rebelled.

But second, in issuing his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln may have overstepped what his War Powers authorize. Mid-war he based it on his ability to “confiscate the property” of an enemy nation. The post-war problem is that this is flimsy ground, for if the South really is not a separate nation then confiscating Southerners “property” might not stand up in court, and freed slaves might return to bondage.

Similarly, in the political calculus of the waning days of the war people are motivated to pass an amendment if it will help force the South to surrender, but after the war ends there may be much less heart for such an amendment. Slavery could in fact return. Decisions about opportunities to end the bloodshed will have to face into that hard calculus.

Lincoln knows that the time is “Now, Now, Now!” but at great cost, as personified in painful family recriminations between Abe and Mary. The rough and tumble of political infighting, and Lincoln’s walking a razor line of reasoning to keep his integrity while pressing on, is equally laid bare. The House of Representatives is “a rat’s nest of hicks and hacks,” Lincoln’s closest adviser and friend, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), reminds him.

And Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania Republican abolitionist radical Thaddeus Stevens (here Republicans truly are social progressives) almost steals the show as a man at the center of mobilizing votes, and tempering his own eloquence, to win the day. Closeted in a basement White House kitchen while a reception goes on above them, Lincoln asks Stevens to tone down his ardent abolitionist rhetoric for the sake of winning the necessary votes, reminding him that knowing the compass of true north is useful, “but if you’re stuck in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?”

Not so thinly beneath lie subtle and real spiritual choices. “Do we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?” Lincoln asks a couple of young telegraphers in the wee morning hours, as he wrestles through to a key decision of his struggle. And, of course, there is the balance between “purity” and pragmatism.

At its heart Lincoln is as much about the courage and spiritual warfare of thoughtful decision-making, as it is about our coming to appreciate the greatness and uniqueness of a genuine American hero. Its parallels and resonance with current political, social, and religious wrestling are most likely not accidental.

The Rev. Leonard Freeman is a veteran film critic.

Lincoln’s Abiding Challenge


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