Isn’t wisdom gained through understanding how and why something was done? Isn’t that the basis for forming beliefs and opinions? Because history is no longer an integral part of a well-grounded education today, is there any opportunity for those in charge to appreciate the hard-won wisdom of those who went before us and paid such a dear price?
With the release of the most recent biographical film on Abraham Lincoln, we have the gift of a fresh and vibrant Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s luminescent film about our 16th President. We would do well to ponder the invaluable lessons of his presidency, woven like threads of gold into this brilliant historical tapestry.
“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” Abraham Lincoln
Although Lincoln has been a constant in our lives – from the copper pennies that bear his face, to the silhouette on the teachers’ February-themed bulletin board, to the silent, massive image gazing out upon the throngs at his Memorial in Washington – most of us know next to nothing about him – about how he accomplished what so many believed was absolutely and completely wrong, dangerously pig-headed and impossible. He did it because he believed in a higher ideal.
Daniel Day Lewis brings this enigmatic leader into breathtaking focus with his perceptive portrayal of a “scorned, back-woods lawyer,” contemptuously described by his contemporaries as an uncouth, awkward, baboonish, shuffling, and uneducated creature of politics. This Lincoln embodies everything we would eschew today, given the current trend to favor sophisticated form over honest substance.
And yet, the intricacies found in Lincoln’s emotional and intellectual depth leave us gasping. In one sentence he whipsaws us from the lowest political motives to literary analogies that are inspirational. It is a privilege to watch Lincoln’s steady but oh so painful efforts to move our country towards the passage of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, while Lewis steadfastly moves us towards an understanding of Lincoln’s character that is nothing short of a tour de force.
The film examines the messy process of governance, using the high drama and complexities surrounding the passage of the amendment to abolish slavery. That event alone is worthy of study in that the sharp divide in the Union then, is disturbingly similar to the divisions we face today – states rights vs. the good of Union – The UNITED States of America. Left vs. Right. Democrats vs. Republicans. Liberals vs. Conservatives. Democracy vs. Socialism. America vs. Europe. We may be even more polarized today than we were back then, given that so many today seem so ignorant of what they are risking.
Lewis gives us insight into Lincoln’s brilliant mind through his awkward carriage, stooped low by the awesome burden of governance, his powerfully expressive eyes, and his parsimonious language. We see his mind – whirling cogs and wheels – contemplating the repugnance of war, the immorality of slavery and the avarice of his fellow citizens. His Congress vacillates, weighing the sacrifice of doing what is right and necessary, regardless of, or in spite of, personal gain. The audience is mesmerized. We hang on every syllable uttered by men who only in retrospect would be labeled great.
Lincoln should be required viewing for every member of Congress, every appointed government official, as it reminds us in the most uncomfortable ways that without a greater purpose, there can be no justification for the tawdry, squalid, partisan muckraking that consumes our government – we are reduced to the lowest common denominator. The issues of today are equal to the ones which took the country to the precipice in 1865. Yes, we have great causes – all governments, countries, eras have them, but ours seem subordinate to petty partisanship.
Where are the great leaders who are willing to bring passion to outcomes worth more than the political patronage of horse traders and nest featherers? There will always be that, human nature being what it is, but we’ve lost sight of the greater good and there is no one to lead us and inspire us to be better than we are.
I am reminded of a much used phrase, from Aesop, from Patrick Henry, from the new Testament – United we stand, divided we fall, which also appears on the great seal of the State of Kentucky, (incidentally Lincoln’s actual birthplace.) Lincoln understood what was at stake. He knew that governing was a lonely business, not a popularity contest. He was willing to risk his entire Presidency, and ultimately his life, on the strength of an ideal that he believed would right a tremendous wrong and would eventually heal the country. If only we had such wisdom and courage from our leaders now; if only they would choose honesty and truth over political expediency.
If you don’t see another movie this year, I urge you to see this one, and take a few of the younger generation with you. Sally Fields is at her best as Mary Todd Lincoln. We are awed by Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens and we are deeply grateful for the comic relief from James Spader as a hapless lobbiest who breaks the tension when we need it most. David Strathairn as a more than sufficiently arrogant William Seward. There are a few things I could criticize about the Lincoln screen play but I won’t. The bulk of it is just too remarkable to mention minor flaws.
P.S. If this movie whets your appetite and you are curious to know more about the subtle brilliance of Lincoln, I heartily recommend Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. It was a primary resource for this movie.