2012-11-16

Lincoln – A Fascinating Slice Of History

by Yo Snyder

The real genius of Steven Spielberg in Lincoln isn’t that he
was able to make a film about the process of politics an interesting and
riveting drama, but that he was able to do that about something that we
already know the outcome of. The thirteenth amendment’s been long
passed, but I still found myself fervently hoping that ol’ Abe would be
able to scrounge up enough votes to get it passed. Not only that, but I
even found a simple scene of roll call in the House of Representatives
to get everyone’s vote (potentially one of the most boring things ever
put to film), rather suspenseful and tense until some part in the back
of my brain pointed out I already knew the outcome. All that to say,
this movie is quite an accomplishment for Spielberg, and one of the
richest movies (in terms of characters, plot, dialogue, and visuals)
that I’ve seen this year.

Now, much has been made of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham
Lincoln, and rightfully so. He imbues the character with a solemn
weariness and grief, a mischievous wit and wry wisdom, and even a little
cunning. He’s a nuanced and complicated character, and often just as
much is conveyed by what he doesn’t says as what he does. However, I
think Tommy Lee Jones almost steals the show here. As the character of
Thaddeus Stevens, he is at the same time both entirely unlikable and
completely endearing. He is a man who would do just about anything to
abolish slavery because of the very personal meaning it has to him. It’s
Jones, not Day-Lewis, who has one of the best and most triumphant
scenes in the film. True, the character is very similar to the
curmudgeonly type of characters he often plays, but it’s hard to not
enjoy how much he’s obviously reveling in the role, or those touching
moments where his character goes much deeper than the crusty, grumpy
exterior. In truth, the entire cast does a fine job, but these two are
the shining stars of the film.

The other star of the film is the film itself. It’s a sumptuous
visual affair filled with rich dialogue and scored with an understated
but earnest soundtrack that often just haunts the background and rarely
intrudes by coming to the fore. Spielberg seems to be on an “old-school”
kick, with both this movie and his recent War Horse harkening
back to the golden days of Hollywood when movies were often more about
substance than flash. Honestly, I don’t know how much of a market there
is for a dialogue-heavy, it’s-basically-a-play-in-movie-form story about
the process of politics, even if it is about Abraham Lincoln (who, by
the way, does not come off quite as squeaky clean as myth and legend
have made him out to be). This is the type of movie that’s the complete antithesis of The Avengers,
but it’s also a movie of a rare, thoughtful quality. I must admit
though, the earnestness of its “old-school” quality leads to one or two
contrived, almost melodramatic moments that lack the subtlety truly
required, but they are minor moments that don’t cause the film as a
whole to stumble.

Lincoln may not have any invaders from outer space or heroes
in brightly colored garb, but its central character is still just as
heroic. This is the story of a man who knew the right thing to do, and
who was willing to do just about anything to do it. It wasn’t just about
politics to him, but a moral obligation to do right by the millions of
people who would be touched by whether or not this amendment was passed.
Indeed, Lincoln feared for the moral health of the nation, stating that
its moral compass had been ossified by tolerating the evil of slavery
for a long as it had. Somehow, Lincoln knew that this was a moment of
history that if it wasn’t seized would pass forever, and who knows what
would have become of this nation had he not taken every initiative to
get the 13th amendment passed.

It’s hard not to wonder what he’d think of the state of our moral
compass today. Although slavery was abolished in one form, it’s reared
its ugly head in many others; human sex trafficking among them (New
Mexico, where I live, is one of the worst states when it comes to that
vile offense). And there are plenty of other evils as well, politically
charged ones such as abortion, that continue the process of ossifying
our moral compass. I
wonder if we shall every again have a leader such as Lincoln; one so
beloved that he could force change like he did not because everyone
liked it, but because the people loved and respected him. Would we even
tolerate such a leader today; one so driven and determined to do what is
right, even if it isn’t what is popular? More importantly, have we lost
our moral compass in this nation? Have we lost sight of True North?

Spielberg was wise to release this move after the recent
election, for if he hadn’t I can’t help but think these major issues,
these deep things for us to ponder not just in our minds, but in our
souls, would have been trivialized and politicized for the benefit of
the election outcome and then quickly forgotten thereafter. The election
has already been determined, but the issues Lincoln raises still
linger. What is the state of this nation’s moral compass, and what if
anything can be done about it? In order to bring about change, does it
matter who’s in the White House, or does that power rest with we the
people? Or, does it lie in cooperation between the two? Those are
questions for which I don’t necessarily have an answer, but I do know
this: unless we fix our moral compass upon the True North of God and the
Truth with a capital “T” of his word, the Bible, the answers to the
rest of those questions won’t matter. A compass needs something fixed,
certain, and unchanging as reference point to help guide those who would
use it to find their way. When it comes to the issues this nation faces
today, we need the same thing in a spiritual and moral sense. Without
it, we are truly lost. The great thing about a movie like Lincoln is it affords us an opportunity to stop and ponder such things, not just while we watch it, but even after the credits roll.

The Speaker of the House said it best when questioned about his
desire to participate in the vote for the thirteenth amendment; it
wasn’t something ordinary, it was history. Lincoln
is a riveting look into a fascinating bit of history that I confess I
knew little about. I didn’t know what lengths Lincoln went to in order
to get that amendment passed. I wasn’t aware of what he was willing to
risk and how far he was willing to go (he did more than bend the law, he
probably broke it) in order to do what he knew was right for the people
and for the nation. This wasn’t an ordinary moment in time, it was a
turning point in history. Somehow, Lincoln sensed that and knew what was
at stake. Sure, looking back we already know the outcome, but that
doesn’t make the experience of seeing it, or at least some version of
it, take place, any less intriguing. Lincoln is one of those rare
movies that not only gives us a glimpse of an age past, but gives us
something to ponder about the age in which we live. Today, things are
different and yet very similar to what they they were in Lincoln’s day.
We should tread carefully for we live in no ordinary time, but yet
another turning point in history. All of that aside, Lincoln is
simply a great film from a director who’s at the top of his form.
Spielberg has taken something that should be truly dull and made it
completely fascinating, and for that alone I think he deserves another
one of those little gold statues.

Score: 6 of 7 (There are a few profanities throughout, and a couple short but rather grisly war scenes)