Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is one of those rare historical dramas that manages to hold the viewer’s attention through the power of the acting and the story without resorting to sex, extended battle scenes or the extensive addition of counter-factual characters or storylines. It is a great movie and offers a terrific performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln is also a great reminder that at one time, the Republican Party actually stood for some bold and timeless ideas – and was the political home of men who were willing to fight for them.
To history buffs and viewers of a certain age, the story of the dissension within Lincoln’s Cabinet -- the Radical Republican fight to end slavery and the closing days of the Civil War -- will be familiar. To those burdened with a public education of recent vintage, many of the names and players will be new and the fact that a Union victory in the Civil War might not have brought about the immediate end of slavery may come as a surprise.
"The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America," as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, masterfully played by Tommy Lee Jones, said of the passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery. That great moral question, ending slavery, is the pivot point around which all of the drama in the movie revolves.
Those revisionists who are inclined to frame the Civil War in terms of an argument over states’ rights and to bring that argument forward to our present political questions -- or to see in the extraordinary measures Lincoln took to prosecute the war the seeds of today’s federal bureaucratic tyranny -- will no doubt object to a film that makes it clear the Civil War was about slavery and further canonizes Lincoln the tyrant.
However, some of the more interesting and compelling scenes in the film are Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln’s introspective examination of exactly those questions.
Sally Field also gives a powerful performance as Lincoln’s troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. However, while the facts and drama of the Lincoln martial relationship lend context and richness to the story, it is the political machinations behind the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery that give the film its drama and drive it forward.
Also, adding richness to the drama are the fabulous costumes and the film’s dialogue that captures Lincoln’s speaking style and humor as recorded by his contemporaries and the scholarship of biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
History buffs, Lincoln experts and states’ rights Civil War revisionists will all no doubt find things large and small to criticize about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. For my own part, I loved the film, not only for its rich portrayal of one of our greatest Presidents, but for its clarion call to today’s Republicans to stand for the big idea of freedom and to exercise moral courage in its pursuit.