Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is more of an inspiring experience than an historical study. That is not to say that the facts of the Lincoln presidency and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment presented are not accurate, but it is to explain that the film creates a work of art in which history is given life and eloquence. Based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin and adapted for the screen by Tony Kushner (Munich), the dialogue is superb, the framing and cinematography are artistically engaging, and the title role is perfectly cast with Daniel Day-Lewis. Similar to his award winning film Amistad in which Spielberg presents the plight of slaves and the efforts of abolitionists, this film presents the dynamics that gave legal rights to all races of Americans.
The setting of the tale is 1865 when the Civil War is nearly over and Lincoln has been reelected to a second term. During the election his Republican party has taken over control of the Senate and the House, but Lincoln decides to garner a two-thirds majority of the lame-duck Congress to pass his constitutional amendment to end slavery permanently. It is this dual struggle of the tragedy of war and the machinations of politics that is the focus of this tale.
The two sides of the political struggle are portrayed in heated debates between the Republicans who want to abolish slavery and the Democrats who want it retained. However, what makes the film especially compelling is the struggle that is presented within Lincoln’s cabinet as well as within his family. Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) is an outspoken wife and grieving mother whose second son Willie had died only a few years earlier when the war had just begun. Unable to care for her youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), Lincoln had taken him under wing and allowed him to have full access to himself in spite of his focus on the demands of the Presidency.
Believing strongly in his destiny to bring freedom and democracy to the stage of history, Lincoln is a formidable intellect and a convincing advocate. But the lively dialogue within the cabinet makes it obvious that he is also interested in hearing from strong advisors who do not necessarily agree but will work together to achieve Lincoln’s agenda. His primary advisor is Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathaim) who strongly presents his views and is disappointed when Lincoln takes political actions without discussion or even informing him.
The other leaders involved in this significant moment in history are Preston Blair (Hal Halbrook), Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), and Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris). Along with the rest of the large cast, these leaders present varying factions and complex opinions of the abolitionists, administration and House of Representatives.
Witnessing Lincoln’s struggles in his family, his cabinet and his congress allows us to understand the man who brought about the most powerful social change in our nation’s history. That the struggle was also fought on the battlefield with the loss of over 620,000 Americans is a powerful reminder of the price of such change. May we never forget the cost of the creation of a nation in which all people are given rights under the law and the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. As Christians in the Free Methodist tradition, both of us (Hal and Denny) belong to an abolitionist denomination that was formed in 1860 over the issue of equality for all races and economic classes as well as for women. “Freedom” is central to our Christian expression of God’s love. In the film, Spielberg accurately presents the views of some Christians from the Confederacy who felt God had created some races inferior to others while Christians from the Union expressed their understanding that God created all humans equal. What is your belief about human beings and the source of their worth? Why do you believe as you do?
2. When the forefathers of our nation declared our nation’s independence, they affirmed that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights…”. Why do you think it has been so hard for us to live out this conviction that every human being is created by God as an equal and valuable person? Why do you think that governments, groups and societies so often relegate some human beings to that of lesser status and worth?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.