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The Best Lincoln Ever?

Well, you can’t miss the new film Lincoln.  Here’s the big reason:  Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is pretty much WHO we will think of when imagining the person “Father Abraham” from now on.  He really looks like the lanky, awkward Lincoln.  He has the mannerisms down, including those of the world-class listener.  I doubt the real Lincoln sounded all that much like the actor’s Lincoln, but this Lincoln’s voice contains the intense ardor, the ironic diffidence, the melancholy, the paternalism (in the good sense), the relentless political logic, etc. of the real guy.  It’s a “contains multitudes” voice.  It makes the magnanimity of the Gregory Peck Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird seem lamely one-dimensional by comparison.

Someone might complain that the characterization goes a little too far down the semi-divine, loved-by-multitudes, Christlike-sacrificial-martyr route.  The film’s portrayal of Lincoln also might be criticized—despite his protestations about extemporizing and experimenting—for making him seem a bit too in control of events. A virtue of Spielberg (as opposed to the Coens) is to see this one extreme is better than the other.

It’s good to be reminded so poetically that great men “make a difference” in securing the future of human liberty—and especially with a bit of subtext about the difference almost always being questionable in certain ways.  The movie reminds us more than enough—through, for example, the president walking amidst piles of dead bodies at Petersburg—that it was an awesomely bloody difference, and that the rebels were proud and honorable men who were defending more than slavery. Lincoln’s thought came to be that if the war wasn’t about ending slavery, then it surely wasn’t worth it.  And so those who didn’t see the war that way—beginning with Mrs. Lincoln—thought they knew that nothing could justify the slaughter at Cold Harbor.

A very impressive feature of the script is Lincoln’s concern for constitutional forms. He’s aware that his extraconstitutional uses of war powers for military necessity couldn’t be enduring precedents, and even that the Emancipation Proclamation might be construed—once peace comes—as contrary to his understanding of the constitutional status of the rebels and the rebellion.

So Lincoln had to use all means necessary (under the law!) to get the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT passed before the war was over.  His haste was affirmed by some as a way of ending the war, but it actually included a decision or two that might well have delayed the war’s end. Various characters, beginning with the president himself, remind us that Lincoln’s respect for constitutional forms might have less than consistent.

The film’s other magnificent performance was Tommy Lee Jones as THADDEUS STEVENS.  Stevens came to appreciate that, although he and Lincoln differed and would continue to differ on means, they agreed on the end.  Lincoln’s fervor for the amendment surprised Stevens, and he reluctantly but manfully toned down his rhetoric—admitting he might have said almost anything—to get it passed.  Stevens’ new rhetoric was appropriately constitutional:  The amendment doesn’t mean that men “are equal in all things,” but only that they are equal under the law.

Stevens and Lincoln wanted the Constitution’s only mention of slavery to be to end it.  The films causes us to wish that Lincoln had lived, though, to make Reconstruction more liberal or generous and so more sustainable.  Stevens, we’re shown, really was usually a reckless radical in the service of good intentions, and we can imagine ways in some alternative-history universe that Lincoln could have effectively reined him in.

In our rhetorical times (and right after our election), it’s also good to be reminded that it’s the content—rather than delivery—of speeches that endures.  The film in several ways highlights the fact that Lincoln (unlike our president today) didn’t actually have a particularly effective speaking voice, and at Gettysburg it was very hard for those present even to hear him.  Yet even by 1865 ordinary Union soldiers both black and white had those words memorized as the best expression of the cause for which they were fighting and dying.

Maybe the main weakness of the film (I’m not one to quibble over historical detail) is that the words written for Lincoln by the author of the script (Tony Kushner) that weren’t actually said or written by the president don’t always ring true.  But there are more than enough true and noble about its Lincoln’s words and deeds to ensure that the film will long endure.


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