Abraham Lincoln is challenging subject matter for movie makers, for two reasons.
First there are the practical challenges of portraying someone as unique looking as Lincoln on the screen in a believable manner without having the portrayal descend into caricature.
Second, there are the challenges of the complexities of Lincoln’s times which have become obscured by the myths which have grown to surround Lincoln himself, along with the other larger-than-life characters of that age. Let’s not forget that Lincoln himself has evolved beyond martyred political hero into the realm of fictional super hero and vampire slayer in popular culture.
One can see how other heroes of old, such as King Arthur and Robin Hood, have happened to become more myth than historical fact.
Lincoln rises to the first challenge beautifully. Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln is spot-on. Perhaps the most surprising element of the portrayal is his voice. We have no recordings of Lincoln himself to listen to, and I think most expect such a large man to speak in a deep, resonating baritone. But Lewis is true to contemporary descriptions of Lincoln as having a higher-pitched voice that, while authoritative, was also soft. Add in a few examples of Lincoln’s propensity for making his points with humorous anecdotes (you’ll laugh out loud at his Ethan Allen story even if you, like me, have heard it before) and you get a pitch-perfect image of Lincoln on the screen that may never be rivaled.
On the second challenge the movie, while not executing perfectly, did much better than I expected (part of me expected, Hollywood being Hollywood, that Lincoln and his fellow abolitionists would be affiliated with Democrats in the film) which perhaps shouldn’t surprise me as it used as its source Doris Kearns Goodwin’s most excellent and scholarly work on Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals.
The most interesting aspect of Lincoln’s time in office, for me anyway, has always been the morality of his brand of leadership. It often gets lost in the great, shining light of the man’s accomplishment in freeing the slaves, but Lincoln was not a politician afraid of crossing ethical lines. What surprises me is that the movie does make an effort to touch on this more unseemly side of Lincoln’s character, though it doesn’t get the attention it should.
Perhaps that, too, is not surprising. Lincoln has become an almost messianic figure in American history, and any attempt to portray any aspect of his character in a negative light can stir controversy. Especially tied as he is to America’s troubling history with racial issues. Americans often prefer their stories about national heroes like Lincoln to be more hagiographic than faithful to reality.
Yet still, in the movie Lewis as Lincoln delivers a soliloquy before his cabinet in which he admits that his Emancipation Proclamation may not have been entirely legal, and was little more than a political gimmick at best. Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, portrayed in the movie by David Strathairn, would say of that proclamation in real life that “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
Lewis as Lincoln mentions in this same speech that some have come to see him as a dictator, running roughshod over the nation’s laws. He references his controversial suspension of habeas corpus, as an example.
Later, Lincoln’s descent into outright bribery to win votes for the 13th amendment is illustrated colorfully and at length. At the end of the movie Tommy Lee Jones, portraying abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, presents the amendment as one having been bought with “bribery.”
Lincoln’s ethical lapses are portrayed in an approving manner, and with little exploration of whether or not the ends Lincoln deployed justified the means. Perhaps they did. Perhaps the cause of freeing the slaves was so just that a little vote buying, and some stretching of executive powers and privileges, was justified.
But then, as we see all the time with government, once certain powers are stretched they tend to remain stretched. And are not all those who back a cause in government confident in its righteousness? Might they, too, be excused for crossing ethical lines in pursuit of their goals?
That seems a slippery slope, if there ever was one. But perhaps the movie-going public at large isn’t prepared for lengthy explorations of ethical quibbles and moral ambiguities. It is to the credit of the movie, though, that they at least tried to incorporate these elements.
The focus of the movie is on the issue of slavery, and the battle over the 13th amendment in particular, so it may be excused for not tackling the other thorny issue of Lincoln’s day which was the issue of state’s rights and secession. There, too, Lincoln’s true legacy is obscured. Lincoln was an absolute believer in the superiority of the federal government over the states. The impetus for the north’s war on the south wasn’t directly about slavery, though that blemish on the soul of American democracy was the foundation, but rather about the nature of the union itself. Was the union a voluntary organization of sovereign states that could be dissolved by some or all of the state should they wish?
The south thought so, and invoked their view as a way to keep slavery legal. The north disagreed, and Lincoln was an absolute tyrant in imposing his view of federal supremacy (author Thomas DiLorenzo has done some excellent work on that subject matter). The war between the states cost America over 600,000 lives, more than any other war in our nation’s history, but perhaps the graver cost was the loss of the sovereignty to the states to the central government. That’s a fundamental shift in the balance of power in our nation that we still feel today as we battle federal law that runs roughshod over the states, from education to health care to drug prohibition.
The greatest evil ever done to the cause of state’s rights, I believe, was the tying of state’s rights to the institution of slavery in the Civil War era. Even today, those espousing states rights are accused of having racism as their motivation. But I digress.
This is a movie very much worth seeing, but if you do see it, please do so as a prelude to picking up Goodwin’s book on which it was based, and perhaps as a jumping off point into a more thorough exploration of one of the most transformative times in our nation’s history, and not just on issues of race but on the relationship between the states and the union they formed.