Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why You Should See Lincoln

Law[s] are like sausages in that you should not watch them being made.
—Otto von Bismarck, 19th Century German Chancellor

Last week I went to a matinee showing of Lincoln, the critically acclaimed current running movie directed by Stephen Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Fields as the First Couple in Oscar-caliber performances. If you have not already done so, I urge you to see this film.

In addition to terrific performances by a stellar cast (who could possibly have portrayed the curmudgeonly and irascible old liberal Thaddeus Stevens better than Tommy Lee Jones?), the film revolves around Lincoln's successful campaign to get the 13th Amendment—abolishing slavery—passed by a reluctant and fractious House of Representatives.

Spielberg takes us behind the curtain for a meticulously researched and intimate look at Lincoln, at the zenith of his power and popularity, making sausage. We see the person who many regard as the greatest President in US history successfully navigating the rip tides and shoal reefs of US partisan politics to secure the capstone legislation of his tumultuous administration—something the country is very proud of today—yet the machinations and politicking employed to secure this great accomplishment will have you squirming in your seat.

The action takes place in early 1865, with the country bone-weary from the devastating toll in lives lost and economic upheaval after four years of Civil War. The South was clearly headed for defeat and some favored bringing forward legislation to abolish slavery as a bargaining chip, to force Jefferson Davis & company to the peace table. Others (a minority that included the aforementioned Stevens) opposed slavery on moral grounds. 

While today we might assume that a stand against slavery was tantamount to believing in the equality of all people, that was not the case 150 years ago, and there's a telling moment in the movie when a representative opposed to the 13th Amendment rose to the House floor to scare those favoring it with threats that passage would be a slippery slope leading to the horror of Blacks voting, followed inevitably by the enfranchisement of women. (Of course, he was right. What an interesting time in US history, caught midway between conscience and enlightenment.)

One of my favorite sequences in the movie involved the interplay between Lincoln and Stanton, his dyspeptic Secretary of War (which cabinet position today has been transmogrified into the less belligerent euphemism, Secretary of Defense—back in 1865 they called it like it was). As both politicians and military personnel huddled anxiously around the telegraph hoping for news of a quick victory in the battle for Charleston, which would close the South's last ocean port, Lincoln started to tell a story (which was no more remarkable than Arnold Palmer proposing a round of golf, or Julia Child suggesting we whip up a little dinner) and Stanton lost it, stomping from the room. Meanwhile, the President blithely continued with his scatological account of Ethan Allen coming upon a portrait of George Washington in an English outhouse. I loved both the story and the tension captured between Lincoln and Stanton.

There's no doubt that people manage stress in idiosyncratic ways and I'll wager that the range of responses to war room shaggy dog stories are just as portrayed in the movie: helpfully distracting for some, and maddeningly irrelevant to others.
While Lincoln's Republican party (then only 11 years old) held a House majority, they needed two-thirds approval for a constitutional amendment and that meant securing Democratic votes as well—even assuming they could hold all the Republicans in line. With Secretary of State Seward starring in the unsavory role of Lincoln's bag man, some votes were pried loose with the lure of lucrative patronage jobs, some were maneuvered with political arm twisting, some with an appeal to conscience, and others still were held in place by the artful sleight-of-hand concealment of the existence or whereabouts of the South's peace delegation. 

What all of this adds up to is that the film begs a tough question: Even if you accept that politics is "the art of the practical," when does a great end—in this case, abolishing slavery—justify ethically questionable means? And if at all, with what limits, and who decides? Shoal waters indeed.

For my money that's what makes for great cinema: a film that entertains you and makes you think. It's the best movie I've seen since Crash in 2004.

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