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
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,