SocraticGadfly: Go see #Lincoln — that's an order

November 24, 2012

Go see #Lincoln — that's an order

Movie poster photo via Wikipedia
Folks, you just gotta go see “Lincoln.” It’s a winner for this year and beyond. I cried more than once as well as laughing more than once.

Even someone more skeptical than me about just how great Lincoln was, versus possible hagiography? In the movie he clearly admits pushing the law’s boundaries on some of his acts, like habeas corpus. He doesn’t claim to be an equalitarian, unlike Thaddeus Stevens. Except for the very end of the movie, there’s little hagiography; beyond that, the laughing? Lincoln is portrayed as a canny and skilled politician who also happens to be President of the US during a war that killed the equivalent of 7-8 million people today. And, whether or not he could have fought the war better, or even a lot better, and ended it (with the right results beyond “just” battlefield victory) sooner, or even much sooner, he felt the pain of the war throughout, and the movie shows it.

And, as a movie in general? There’s not a bunch of CGI or other special effects. Like a good, classic movie, it depends on acting first, followed by good cinematography (and that’s good here, too).

As for acting? Beyond Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones was great as Thad Stevens. Likewise, David Strathairn was great as Seward. Sally Field had a strong performance as Mary Lincoln, with one scene of the two of them showing the tensions and dynamics in that marriage. (Oh, and I don’t care how old she is, she’s still quite a “handsome” woman.) Hal Holbrook does a nice brief turn as Francis Preston Blair. (And, I think Day-Lewis was the better person for the title role than Liam Neeson.)

I can’t believe that, so far, it’s only gotten a 7.9 on IMBD.

As for the central focus of the movie? People who aren’t Civil War buffs, or general American history buffs, may not “get” Lincoln’s rush to get the 13th Amendment past Congress.

Well, it’s simple, and the movie explains this well. We had a part-time Congress back then. Other than selection of its new officers, the new Congress would do nothing until December. Lincoln, perhaps rightly worried about how a postwar Supreme Court would view the Emancipation Proclamation even within the seceded states and knowing it didn’t apply to the border states, and thinking that Southern states would reclaim “full statehood rights” after the Civil War, felt that he had to get the amendment past Congress ASAP.

The movie does a good job, through various people’s mouths, of setting this up, above all, showing Lincoln’s intensity on the issue. And, his willingness to use political means to achieve moral ends.

I don’t put Lincoln on too much of a pedestal myself, but, I think April 14, 1865 was clearly the most tragic single day in American history. Lincoln probably would have toughened up his “rosewater” reconstruction plans when he saw the rise of the Klan, while yet extending carrots to smart-minded Southerners. He would have put down the Klan and related groups immediately, unlike Andrew Johnson, that’s for sure. And, from 1869 on, he would have been a Republican elder statesman to guide President Grant.

That said, the one bit of hagiography? After Lincoln’s deathbed, Spielberg ends with Lewis doing Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. And that leaves me in mind of what Tony Kushner, the screenwriter, said recently on Fresh Air on NPR.

Bluntly? He needs to read Eric Foner's "Reconstruction." (Or his latest, "The Fiery Trial.") Kushner was claiming that the "lost cause," the rise of the Klan, etc., were due to nobody in the North listening to Lincoln's “Malice for none.”


Reality? The Klan arose during the first half of Andrew Johnson's administration, precisely because Johnson was too soft. And, as partial illustration? The Klan's leadership was first offered to Robert E. Lee, before Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lee turned it down but not on moral principles. Rather, it appears he thought such type of work was beneath him and his position in the Southern social hierarchy and caste.

But, as I said, above, I think Lincoln would have become sterner when necessary. As a great politician, he would have known that Radical Republicans could constitutionally bar Southern states from Congress, to the point of threatening to run against him in 1866, like they actually did against Johnson, and even overriding his vetoes, perhaps.

I have a more detailed follow-up here on how and why Kushner is wrong on this issue. And, it's important. A lot of people will see this movie and talk more about Lincoln and his ideas and goals, and too many people already think the way Kushner does about Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Per that link, if we want to do the ratings game, the movie gets five stars for drama but just four for historicity. It's not that it's inaccurate, but it is incomplete in how it frames emancipation and who besides Lincoln was a "driver" of the issue, and when, why and how. (See the poll at right and cast your own vote.)

For links to interviews with Spielberg and the actors, and more, see the movie’s Facebook page.

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