Daniel-Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln: An Important Story for All Time

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By Glynn Wilson

There is no more significant or enigmatic a character in American history than Abraham Lincoln.

He is often ranked for success or popularity by historians and public opinion surveys as number one on the list of top U.S. presidents. But while Lincoln has been depicted on film before, it is about time that he and the crucial issues of his day were portrayed both accurately and poignantly.

What better time than after the reelection of President Barack Obama, the first African-American president in U.S. history, who is sometimes compared to Lincoln for his height and build and other things, and is obviously inspired by him. What better time than when this nation is at another historical crossroads that could decide not only the fate of the future of the United States, but the world as well?

Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis bring Lincoln and the controversies of the day to life on screen in a way that is rare in commercial Hollywood movie making. The story and its telling should not just be viewed critically for its quality as art. It was obviously intended to inform our current national debate.

While some of the reviews of Lincoln have pointed out a few minor flaws in the story (it is not a comprehensive documentary about the Civil War) and professional or amateur historians might pick a thing or two to quibble with, like Daniel-Day Lewis’s high-pitched, nasal drawl as Lincoln, I give the film maker, the actor and the screen writer credit for researching the accuracy of such things.

Some may see this as another in a long line of over-dramatized caricatures from American history drawn without pointing out obvious warts and flaws of character. But as a writer myself I can forgive most of this in the interest of the need to focus down on an important historical theme to tell a critical story that might inform our modern debate about such things as national health care, immigration or the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

As far as I’m concerned, it is not the primary job of a movie review to tell people whether the movie is worth seeing or not (this one is even according to the most critical reviews), or whether it is fully accurate or not (this one might leave out some of Lincoln’s early political positions on what to do about the slaves, for example, like when he mentioned sending them all back to Africa).

It is to show everyone in this country who may still doubt the wisdom of ending slavery why it was a critical step not only in ending the War Between the States, the political reason for doing it as portrayed clearly in the film. It is to show this absolutely critical step in human advancement and evolution and give credit to the man most responsible for accomplishing the legal obliteration of the ownership of human beings by all men for all time. You can knock Lincoln if you will for a lot of things, but there is no denying his greatness for this. Slavery had already long-since been abolished in England and the rest of Europe.

While the film starts with the words of the Gettysburg Address delivered on Nov. 19, 1863 and highlights the Emancipation Proclamation order issued on Jan. 1, 1863, these words are not shown being uttered by Lincoln himself. The symbolic, sometimes surreal visual story telling puts those words in other mouths, especially some of the African-Americans who fought and died for their freedom in the war.

It ends with Lincoln delivering his second Inaugural Address after the depiction of his shooting at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, and the scene at the iconic president’s death bed.

But the main strain of the story focuses on the uniquely American political process and how Lincoln got personally involved to insure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery and bringing about the end of the war.

While the New York Times review even applauds this film for its depiction of the down and dirty political process that made passage of the Thirteenth Amendment possible, a key focus of the story in the film, most of the critical reviews use this to bash Lincoln for using patronage jobs and other political pressures to get the necessary votes from reluctant, lame-duck Democrats to pass the measure.

For political junkies who relish the political process of democracy and realize this is exactly what it sometimes takes to get things done in Washington, however, and for those who realize this might have been the only chance to outlaw slavery “once and for all time,” as Lincoln says, this should be viewed not as a negative but as a hallmark of the era and the film that might be a needed lesson for today’s sometimes less than courageous Democrats — and lock-step Republicans.

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the U.S. Senate on April 8, 1864, but was bottlenecked in the House. Sound familiar? The film focuses on how it passed in the House on Jan. 31, 1865.

It was later adopted when two-thirds of the states, 27 of 36, ratified it on Dec. 6, 1865. The last four were South Carolina (Nov. 13), Alabama (Dec. 2), North Carolina (Dec. 4) and Georgia (Dec. 6). All 36 states eventually joined to make the ratification unanimous.

For those who are not avid students of Civil War history, it will be fascinating for them to see how Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee played by Tommy Lee Jones, compromised his principles to get the amendment passed. A long-time advocate for the abolition of slavery and for fulfilling the clause in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he stood on the House floor and declared that he was only there to stand for “equality under the law,” not “equality in all things.”

That compromise allowed enough Democrats in the South to vote for the measure for it to pass.

There are a number of inaccurate Confederate Websites that claim Lincoln had not always been against slavery and some amateur historians misinterpret his so-called “Peoria speech,” in which Lincoln said that slavery was wrong but admitted he didn’t know what should be done about the slaves after the practice was outlawed. He openly toyed with the idea of freeing them and sending them all back to Liberia, Africa.

But that was in 1854 when Lincoln was merely a Congressman from Illinois. After he inherited the awesome responsibility as president in 1861, and after seeing all the carnage of the war himself, Lincoln became convinced that not only should slavery be abolished, but that its end would also guarantee the collapse of the South’s reason for fighting and bring an end to the bloody war.

Chief among his concerns was that after the war, the Emancipation Proclamation could be viewed legally as a temporary war measure, since it was based solely on the president’s newly forged war powers, viewed as questionable then just as Nixon’s were questioned in Vietnam and Bush’s powers should have been questioned in Iraq. The proclamation did not free any slaves in the border states nor did it abolish slavery. Lincoln and other supporters knew the Constitution had to be amended, and it was better to delay any negotiations for peace with the South until it was passed.

Lincoln’s brilliant move to keep a peace delegation from the South out of Washington, held up on the steam boat River Queen in Virgina, is depicted in the movie, as well as the early form of lobbying it took to pass the bill.

To get the necessary votes, Secretary of State William Seward, played by David Strathairn, engages the services of three somewhat shady characters, who appear to be drawn from caricatures right off the pages of Mark Twain, to persuade mostly lame-duck Democrats to vote for the measure. These early-day lobbyists were played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader, whose mannerisms give this film a break from seriousness and a good dose of humor. Lincoln himself is also quite funny at times, so don’t stay away from this movie due to expectations that is a somber affair about war and politics. Scenes of the dead are there in the beginning and the end, but the war itself is not the primary subject under Spielberg’s microscope.

What is at stake is the House vote. The two-thirds margin needed to pass the bill at the time was reached on Jan. 31, 1865. The archival copy of it bears not only the signature of the president himself, but also the Speaker of the House, who wanted to cast a vote for history’s sake but was not legally allowed at the time.

The historic Thirteenth Amendment reads as follows:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation

Partly based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Lincoln” took home a record seven Golden Globe nominations for Spielberg and is up for a number of academy awards for best director, best picture and best actor honors for Daniel Day-Lewis, as well as best supporting actor nominations for Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, who played Lincoln’s wife Mary, as well as best screenplay and score.

The best picture Oscar has mirrored the Globes’ choice for best drama or best comedy-musical about two-thirds of the time over the last two decades, so coupled with the Academy’s long-standing record of rewarding important political-historical films, it is a good bet to win for best picture and best actor, although my opinion of the supporting roles of Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field is not quite as glowing as some reviewers. They played their parts well, and were depicted in larger than life images, but it is Daniel Day-Lewis who owns this show. He is Lincoln, not the Lincoln of Mt. Rushmore so much as the down-to-earth story teller of real life, often delivering his home-spun stories like parables from the Bible itself.

Virtually all of the reviews missed this point. It is not enough to say that Lincoln’s colleagues sometimes got exasperated by his diversionary stories, sometimes delivered in the middle of heated debates. Like a defense attorney using stories from life to convince a jury of a client’s innocence, Lincoln used them often to not only convince his colleagues. If the writer, Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are right, Lincoln sometimes used them to buy time and even convince himself of what was right.

If there is an omission in this film — as well as virtually all of the historical accounts I have seen on the Civil War and Lincoln — it is the absence of any discussion of the thinking of Charles Darwin on slavery, who published On the Origin of Species in Nov. 1859. This was well before Lincoln was elected president and two years before the war started. Lincoln had to be aware of Darwin’s work on evolution by natural selection, and it must have influenced his thinking. I have never seen any mention of this anywhere, which I find quite odd.

But one of my favorite moments in the movie is when Lincoln is discussing the reasoning for ending slavery with a couple of telegraph clerks. He quotes another scientist, a Greek mathematician named Euclid of Alexandria, who pioneered the field of geometry.

“Things which equal the same thing also equal one another,” Lincoln ponders. “Things which coincide with one another equal one another. That is fairness … balance … justice.”

The quote in the film leaves out the last part of the equation, which says, “The whole is greater than the part.” Lincoln could very well have used that to justify keeping the union together, which of course he considered paramount. Negotiations with the South were never allowed to include any language about “separate nations.”

Lincoln would have “surrender” only from the South, no peace that kept slavery intact. That should dispel any notions of certain “parties” today who would like to think of Lincoln as soft on the race question.

He is certainly depicted as a man of great character and class in dealing with everyone from the average slave to the lowliest soldier and the high-and-mighty as well, which must be an accurate portrayal for these great things to have been accomplished in his tumultuous time.

Go see it for yourself on the big screen. This one is well worth the hefty price of admission these days. Did you know movies cost 10 bucks? I guess I don’t get out enough. I got to see this one at The Edge 12 theater off Crestwood Boulevard in Birmingham, where they actually serve Sierra Nevada beer. As always, a little buzz is a good thing when watching a show.

Watch the trailer here.

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.