This felt like one of those old “You Are There” episodes, but done extraordinarily well. The viewer gets to see the inner workings of Lincoln’s sometimes-contentious Cabinet, and the lively debate in the House of Representatives, along with some colorful backroom machinations. The viewer is also privy to some very spirited dialogue between Honest Abe and his wife, Mary (Sally Fields). There, we see that she was not at all afraid to speak her mind to him, despite his exalted historical status. And he, to his credit, never condescended to her. In fact, we never see him condescending to anyone. And that is part of his contagious charm.
Daniel-Day Lewis was born to play this role. Maybe even predestined. The physical resemblance alone is simply stunning. (OK, Lewis is not quite as tall, and doesn’t appear to be at all gangly or physically awkward, as some of Lincoln’s biographers suggest, but that’s a very minor quibble.) This is Abraham Lincoln immediately after his re-election, in late 1864 and early 1865. Though the War Between the States still rages, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the tide has turned. Lincoln has settled on a commanding general (Ulysses S. Grant) whom he inherently trusts. And Grant, for his part, understands the brutal arithmetic of outnumbering the enemy: you just keep trading casualties until the other side can’t carry on any more. No fancy maneuvering required. Just keep brawling, and don’t let up until they cry “Uncle!”.
With the conduct of the War itself not so preoccupying any more, Lincoln turns his attention to politics. He had already written the Emancipation Proclamation, a year and a half earlier, which his opponents castigated as so blatantly beyond his authority as to be an impeachable offense. But Lincoln claims the precipitous act to be under the rubric of authority invested in him in wartime, and he also considers his recent re-election to be an implied plebiscite from the populace that his decision was politically correct, even if not specifically legal. Whatever reasons either side wants to re-construct for entering the War in the first place (“States’ Rights” was the original Confederate battle cry, and the primary political contention was whether slavery would be allowed in the territories soon to become new States), by now the Union has adopted a moral stance. It’s about freeing the slaves, and legally abolishing slavery. Lincoln is convinced that Congress must pass the official legislation which would effectively ratify his executive order. But it’s a huge political wrangle. The other party leaders are adamantly opposed, and even elements within his own party have to be appeased. Lincoln persuades, cajoles, preaches, encourages---everyone from Cabinet members to staffers to Congressmen (there are no females in this role---yet) to aides to clerks to personal assistants. And finally, the Bill passes, which is cause for great rejoicing, followed fairly quickly by Lee’s surrender to Grant, but we all know what happens shortly after that. Interesting that Director Steven Spielberg chose not to portray the assassination itself (it’s been done before), but instead concentrates on the aftermath.
Yes, Reconstruction would no doubt have proceeded with much more compassion and much less vengefulness had Lincoln remained in office. And no doubt the sham and shame that was his successor’s impeachment trial wouldn’t have happened, either. In fact, Lincoln’s sudden absence created a gigantic void, because here was an extraordinary man thrust into incredibly difficult circumstances, and the result was a greatness for the ages.
This is a remarkably accurate film that isn’t just for history buffs, it’s a compelling portrait of arguably the greatest President who ever lived. Even if he did tell corny jokes.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas