On Presidents’ Day, I began* watching Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln, completing my recent trilogy of Lincoln-related entertainment ventures. For those outside the United States, “Presidents’ Day” is a combined holiday which falls on the Monday between the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Federal holiday associated with Washington’s birthday was moved from his actual birthday (February 22nd) to be on a three-day-weekend-creating Monday. Although Lincoln’s birthday was not a Federal holiday, the original text of the 1968 bill referenced “Presidents’ Day.” In the final version which became law, the newly created holiday retained the designation of Washington’s Birthday. Lincoln’s birthday, in and of itself, had and has been a holiday in some states. Additionally, different states treat the “third Monday in February” holiday in various ways. Governmental designations aside, the Republican party often will celebrate “Lincoln Day” in recognition of Lincoln being the first U.S. President elected under the party banner.
I don’t know why I wasn’t more interested in seeing Lincoln. Perhaps I’d read some so-so reviews (although reviews were generally very positive). Perhaps I felt overwhelmed by a wave of biographical dramas, and Lincoln was lost in the haze. It probably didn’t help that Lincoln was released only a few months after the not-so-well-reviewed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Obviously I could tell the difference between the two, but the latter may have tainted the former within my subconscious. Of course, once Netflix decided to pull it out of streaming circulation, I had to sit down and watch it.
I didn’t realize the limited scope of Spielberg’s Lincoln until after I began watching. I had assumed that this would be yet another sweeping “life of” picture; an impression based, I suppose, on the movie’s poster. It is, in fact, very focused. It begins with a dramatic hand-to-hand combat scene depicting the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry before leaping ahead to the days following Lincoln’s second election. The focus of the story is almost entirely on the effort to obtain passage, in the House, of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the prohibition of slavery. The measure had passed the Senate, overwhelmingly, nearly a year early but had failed by 13 House votes in June, 1864.
Lincoln began pressing for the Amendment’s passage after winning the 1864 election and targeting those Democrats who had just lost their own re-election races. The war looked to grind on and on while many feared that the Emancipation Proclamation might not have any legal force absent an open rebellion. Taken together, part of the value of the Amendment was to hasten the end of the war. Yet if the war were to end before the vote, the urgency of passing the Amendment would fade and the Southern States might have time to legally reinstitute jurisdiction over the slaves that Lincoln’s wartime proclamation had freed. While Lincoln’s party platform called for the Amendment and, after winning, he argued for its immediate passage in his State of the Union address, much of the pressure to secure the votes was done while hiding the president’s direct involvement.
As I said, the critiques of the film were positive, but not uniformly so. The acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, found near universal acclaim. He won the Oscar for Best Action, 2012 as well as a slew of other “best actor” titles. It was fine work. One of my metrics for film acting was met. It took me some effort to see “Daniel Day-Lewis” behind the face of Lincoln – his portrayal so overcame his own personality.
The cast for this project includes a huge number of recognizable actors and an impressively large number of them joined Day-Lewis in completely assuming, to my mind, the personae of their historical characters. Perhaps it was the period facial hair or costumes, but many (Sally Fields, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and James Spader spring immediately to mind) actors had me struggling to figure out to whom that vaguely-familiar face belonged. Tommy Lee-Jones played his stock character, though that struck me as dead-on-target for Thaddeus Stevens. I also found amusing the grouping of actors, connected through their other work. Recruited from the OPA were commanders Ashford (David Strathairn) and Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris), portraying Seward and Grant respectively. Seward was joined on Lincoln’s cabinet by Miami Vice partner Bruce McGill**, portraying (less obfuscatingly) Secretary of War Stanton. I’ll grant my award to Strathairn, whom I watched near-simultaneously in The Expanse, Good Night, and Good Luck, and now Lincoln without realizing that this was the same person. After that, remembering his minor appearance in Miami Vice was actually the easy part.
One area of criticism for Lincoln was in its historical accuracy. As ever, this piece has bent and twisted history in service of making a better movie. For the most part, historians accepted the changes, particularly given the historical accuracy in set and costume. Given the current debates regarding the legacy of slavery, State’s rights, imperial presidents, endless wars, and transparency versus expediency, it would be shocking if someone didn’t find something to get upset about in this film.
More than a little speculative is the moral dilemma that is the central feature of the film – and it was a direction I was surprised the film took. Today, Lincoln is generally going to be the hero of any tale about him as the freeing of the slaves is inarguably an unqualified good. In the film, Lincoln knows that the urgency of passage would be diminished, should the war end but also knows that a Peace Commission (the delegates to the Hampton Roads Conference) are prepared to discuss terms for ending the fighting. Spielberg’s Lincoln must decide which path to take – one branch frees the slaves but the other brings a quicker end to the war. Having made the decision, Lincoln later visits the battleground at Petersburg to see the carnage that occurred in between the amendments passage and the eventual surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia more than a month later.
I didn’t expect a focus on this kind of moral dilemma and its inclusion is even more surprised given that it is an oversimplification of the historical situtation. Lincoln’s choice is a version of the so-called “Trolley Problem.” Was Lincoln’s decision to sacrifice thousands, if not 10s of thousands, of lives to free the slaves an ethical one? Might the slaves not have been freed eventually, making that sacrifice in vain? Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, joins the service at this time forcing the president to lie about his motives. While claiming that he pushes the amendments passage so as to end the war, he knows he is doing the opposite. Does Spielberg expect us to see the answer? Was Slavery so great an evil that is was not only worth dying to end, it was worth deceitfully sacrificing lives to end? Or does he leave us to continue to ponder this question on our own time, well after the film is over? Wikipedia cites a Israeli article*** stating that Netanyahu and his ministers debated the message of the film relative to then-current National policy. That suggests a lot of substance for what otherwise might be dismissed as period drama.
My favorite scene in the movie, though, is a joke told about Ethan Allen, not connected to the more serious themes. Lincoln had a penchant for seemingly interrupting an important exchange by saying, “Now, that reminds me of a story…” What would follow would often make listeners laugh as well as enlighten them to a greater truth. Sometimes it would do neither. This aspect of Lincoln’s personality featured in The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, but dramatizing it has a different impact altogether when presented through film. Roughly midway through Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln tells his slightly-vulgar story about Ethan Allen and his exchange with an English nobleman after America’s separation from the Crown. While the story might have been famous at the time, it was considerably less so in my pre-Lincoln lifetime, and heretofore unknown to me. It’s a funny joke and it is funnier still coming from a sitting president admired for his gravitas and dignity. However, what made this scene great was the insertion of a disapproving glare from the nearby portrait of George Washington following the the delivery of the punch line. I laughed out loud – and this was not a laugh out loud movie.
*I emphasize “began” in that this is a two-and-a-half hour film which I was not inclined to complete in one sitting.
**While Lincoln is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, McGill may be best known for playing Daniel Simpson (D-Day) Day in Animal House. Simple mind, simple pleasures.
***I can’t see the Israeli article and probably couldn’t read it if I found it.