Saturday, November 17, 2012

Movie Review: Lincoln

Not-so Honest Abe and the political cost of freedom

I wish Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, had come out three months ago. If the Republican Party had had the opportunity to take the movie’s lessons to heart, the outcome of the 2012 election might have been different.

As with all good biopics, Lincoln focused on a particular episode, rather than attempting to cover the subject’s entire life in 2½ hours. In this case, the episode was the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. The action takes place almost entirely in January of 1865. By that time it was clear the Union would win the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was looking ahead to what would come next. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect for two years, Lincoln was skeptical that he ever had the authority to issue it in the first place: he had justified it as a wartime expedient and was fearful that the courts would overturn it in peacetime. A measure to ensure that the liberty of the black people would be permanent was still needed.

Alas, he didn’t have the votes.

In 1865, the party of freedom was the Republican Party; the Democrats stubbornly fought to keep Americans in chains. Some things never change. But even if every Republican in the House of Representatives voted for the 13th Amendment, which was uncertain, they would still be shy of the two-thirds majority required to amend the Constitution. Lincoln had to somehow persuade 20 Democrats to break party ranks.

And so the wheeling and dealing began; it reminded me of another movie about wheeling and dealing for freedom, 1776. In that earlier film, Benjamin Franklin remarked, “New nations come into the world like bastard children – half improvised and half compromised.” As with the Declaration of Independence, the improvisations and compromises that brought the 13th Amendment into the world were many. Lincoln roundly abused his authority to fill patronage jobs. He issued deliberately misleading, or in one Democrat’s words, “lawyerly,” statements when necessary. One congressman was even promised that a disputed election would be settled in his favor in exchange for his vote. And in a key moment, the whole debate hinged on whether the radical abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (Tommy Lee Jones), could keep his mouth shut.

The parallels to 2012 are clear. As in 1865, there was a battle between freedom and slavery. But politics is the art of the possible; to win, one seldom gets to be pure. The purists who didn’t step up to the plate this year because they thought Romney was too conservative, or not conservative enough, or too vague on this or that issue, should see this movie. As should a certain two Midwesterners (we all know who they are) who would be on their way to the Senate today if only they had not felt the need to say everything that was on their minds.

Abraham Lincoln is a tough role for any actor. Most who attempted it were a little bit off, making them unconvincing. I’m happy to say that was not the case with Daniel Day Lewis. He reportedly spent a year researching the role, and his hard work paid off. Some critics fault him for the high and rather soft voice he used for Lincoln, going so far as to compare it to that of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. But historians say that this was more accurate, and in any case, it worked. By refusing to give us a stereotypical Great Man with a resonant, Gregory Peck voice, Mr. Day-Lewis added realism. His performance, combined with attention to detail in costumes and sets, made me feel like I was a witness to history, actually watching Abraham Lincoln.

The sixteenth president was famous for his stories and jokes, and I was glad that some were included in the script – more glad anyway than Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton (Bruce McGill). In one comic scene, seeing what was coming, Stanton shouted in frustration, “He’s going to tell a story,” and stormed off. Lincoln told the story anyway and it was the best one in the film.

The main criticism I had was that the portrayal of the political situation was too involved. In particular, Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) led a faction of “conservative Republicans,” whose agenda and motives were, at times, unclear to me. Also a subplot involving Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wanted to join the army over his parents’ objections, didn’t add anything.

But these were minor considerations. If you want to see history come alive, and at the same time learn some lessons about how things really work in Washington, go see Lincoln.

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and the disappearance of the Lincoln Memorial. Check it out on

1 comment:

  1. Daniel Day definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for this because the guy is so good that it’s not even funny. Also, the rest of the cast is pretty great, too, especially Tommy Lee Jones who may be looking at another Oscar-win this year. I don’t know, though. Nice review Michael.