If you haven’t seen the new Lincoln movie, I won’t spoil how it ends. I will tell you, however, that the film made me proud to be an American. I’m talking about the Spielberg project, not the one where Lincoln hunts vampires.
I was surprised that it focused on a very narrow time frame, a segment of history that I thought I knew a little about, but obviously didn’t. Sure, like millions of my countrymen, I witnessed the Civil War as presented by public television. I thought I knew a lot about The Emancipation, Appomattox and the Ken Burns effect. All are valuable lessons to learn from history.
But I hadn’t fully comprehended how tight the vote was to actually keep the slaves free once the war was almost over. The Proclamation, as Lincoln said, was more or less a temporary war-related measure. The Thirteenth Amendment, about which most of the film was based on, codified the abolition of slavery. I think the mastery of the movie was the simple fact that we all know how the fight ended, and still the portrayal of those weeks was riveting. It was fantastic watching Republicans of the era espousing what seem to be liberal Democratic values today and vice versa.
The movie had many, many stars. Some were buried, like Kevin Kline in a brief role as a wounded soldier, or the British bloke from Mad Men as Ulysses S. Grant. Some were quite prominent, like Hal Holbrook who, himself, is notable for playing the 16th president.
Sally Field morphed beautifully into one of history’s more misunderstood players, Mary Todd Lincoln. But obviously it was Daniel Day-Lewis who carried the entire show on his willowy, rail splitter’s back. It’s almost impossible to believe that Lewis was born in London during the 1950s and not in early nineteenth century Kentucky. We have no recordings of the former president, but I’m guessing Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of his voice will be the one people think of as Lincoln’s for years to come.
The narrative, the story about how slavery finally ended makes me happy in one sense and terribly sad in another. Yes, I’m proud to be an American, after experiencing Lincoln’s greatness in the historically accurate movie. But history’s double-edged sword swings right back and cuts us all as we try to understand why slavery existed in the first place. And what’s worse, it took the ensuing hundred years to get it “right” with the Civil Rights Act. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was in large part to blame for the lack of initial follow through of Lincoln’s equality ideals. Not surprisingly, Johnson was completely absent from the film.
Apart from the jam-packed history lessons exploding off the screen and the ability of the movie to surprise you, it was in the end, a darn good 2 1/2 hours spent. One of my favorite scenes — made more incredible because it was just Day-Lewis sitting in a basement, talking with Tommy Lee Jones — was about Lincoln’s interpretation of a person’s moral compass. I can’t seem to find the actual conversation quoted on the internet, so maybe it was just a fictitious rendering. Who knows, in those days there were no tape recorders or hidden iPhones at fundraisers where people spoke of the 47%. Maybe Lincoln had many more amazing quotes that were simply lost to time.
So sure, there’s the obvious risk that we’ll start believing as historical fact, everything that Spielberg portrayed. We tend to run our memories through all sorts of weird filters. Thank goodness information is far more readily available these days. But if it weren’t, Lincoln himself would still have had faith in us. Our former president once said,
“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to
meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”