By Joyce Alexander
“Lincoln” teaches us important lessons about history. It shows us that the past is not a far-away land filled with sweeping grandeur and quirky localisms. The by-gone days described in our history books are more than just the backdrop for costume dramas. This film shows us that the past was populated with real people who lived in times when national politics was just as compelling, complicated, and messy as it is today.
This historical drama entertains and informs. “Lincoln” is like a time travel machine. The movie-goer becomes an observer of the goings-on in the back rooms and bedrooms of Washington, DC. It is not a romanticized, reenactment of the civil war. Rather than take the broad view of history, as so many historical dramas do, this film zooms in on a 1-month period at the end of the civil war after the battle at Gettysburg and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The film does not shy away from the brutality of 19th century warfare. In the opening scene, the viewer has a front-row seat to see the hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War. This fighting results in the death of thousands by gunshots, strangulation, and disembowelment. This perspective of the civil war is unflinchingly brutal and nasty.
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does not attempt to tell a sweeping story of the life of this legendary American President. Instead, he shows a very narrow sliver of time when two monumental events headed for collision on the floor of the U.S. Congress. One was the approaching end of the Civil War and the other was the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States which abolished slavery. Today, we take for granted that this event took place as part of a smooth legislative process. But we learn in this film that then, as is still true today, politics in a democracy can be rude, rough and more than a little messy.
This film shows Lincoln as a politician, leader, father, and husband during that queer in-between political time called the lame duck session of Congress. Lincoln has been re-elected to the presidency, the war is about to end, and he has freed the slaves by Executive Order. Now, the President must find a way to get Congress to turn the Emancipation Proclamation into a law that cannot be undone when peace returns and the country is reunited. The film gives us a glimpse into the behind the scenes workings of Washington politics. President Lincoln has to pressure, cajole, bribe, and intimidate politicians to support and pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
This story is especially impressive because so many people have written about Lincoln and the Civil War and it is hard to see how anything new could be added. But, Steven Spielberg does a masterful job of telling the story of this important moment in U.S. history. In this movie, we learn a lot about Lincoln, his era, our country, and the nature of American democracy.
Daniel Day-Lewis is haunting as Abraham Lincoln. We see him here as a man who had a steadfast vision of this country and its future that was not universally shared by his peers. Sally Fields plays his emotional and much maligned wife Mary. Thaddeus Stevens, the stalwart of abolition, is adroitly played by Tommy Lee Jones. Now, this movie is not perfect. You will not learn about the important role that many White and Black abolitionists played in shaping Lincoln’s thoughts and attitudes about slavery. Also, at times, the black characters in the film seem to be little more than props in the background who are moved around the screen by some invisible hand. But maybe that too is a reflection of those times.
So, what do we learn from this film? We learn that history is really just a collection of intimate stories of people. History, when told right, is a story of real people, who experience life challenges that are often similar to our own.