A Lincoln fitted for our times
By Dante on November 23rd, 2012
After the unrelenting, seemingly-never-ending presidential election, the last thing you might want to watch this weekend is a movie about politics — especially one set in the 19th century that goes into the minutiae of the legislative process. But despite the political in-the-weeds-ness of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s latest historical epic and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President, the movie is the perfect chaser for our recently concluded excercise in democracy.
On one hand, Lincoln works because Spielberg doesn’t fall into the biopic trap. Rather than focus on the broad sweep of Abraham Lincoln’s life, Spielberg drills in on January-April 1865. Lincoln, having just been re-elected, turns his attention to abolishing slavery by pushing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives before the end of the Civil War. (Lincoln’s rationale is that if the Confederate states are readmitted to the Union before the amendment is passed, it will never pass.)
This moment in Lincoln’s presidency, which will ultimately lead to his assassination, is used by Spielberg as a microcosm of what made Lincoln, Lincoln. Spielberg and Day-Lewis fill every frame with the the myth of Lincoln — his lawyerly consideration, his even-but-sometimes-scarily-explosive temperament, his complex family life, his struggle with employing potentially-illegal presidential powers during the Civil War, shouldering the burden of history — within the extremely narrow focus of four months of Lincoln’s life. It’s an expert narrative strategy that makes political history, unbelievably, thrilling.
And that’s where the movie ultimately succeeds as a great American movie. In a multiplex dominated big-budget action (Skyfall) and computer animation (Wreck-It Ralph)*, the biggest special effect in Lincoln is rhetoric. People talk and debate – a lot. About policy, about buying votes in the House, about human dignity, about national destiny. It helps that the script was written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner and delivered by an incomparable cast (Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn). But what keeps our attention is that Lincoln, in its way, contextualizes our times.
We hear so often how contentious and nasty our politics are today (and the 2012 presidential was certainly that), but we watch Lincoln and realize: We’re not fighting a civil war, our politicians (mostly) aren’t debasing their opponents by calling them reptilian in a House floor debate. Yet we are dealing with similarly epic challenges. The equal rights versus equal protection debate that courses through Lincoln could apply to marriage equality today, while the back-room deals to secure votes to pass the 13th Amendment (and secure Lincoln’s legacy) reflect the passage of and challenges to Obamacare today.
Lincoln is the best kind of history — one that gives us a better understanding of our present by making the past something tangible and exciting. Not everyone will agree with what Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis try to do (and accomplish, I’d say), but Lincoln will spark discussion, maybe even lively debate, about its treatment of one of our greatest Presidents and its reflection of our times.
And if nothing else, Lincoln tells us that a lively debate is OK. Sometimes, it’s exactly what we need.
*For the record, Skyfall and Wreck-It Ralph are both great movies and worth the ticket price.
Lincoln movie poster courtesy DreamWorks Pictures.