Making a film about Abraham Lincoln is certainly no enviable task – unless, of course, you’d prefer to see him slaying vampires to seeing him desperately fighting to keep his country together. While Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer is immensely entertaining, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the Lincoln film that actually feels like a Lincoln film.
Although many people might be surprised to find out precisely how much. The Civil War is very much omnipresent throughout the film, but treated for what it was: the background to the greatest battle Lincoln ever waged: the war to end slavery in the United States of America.
Lincoln is the leader that every freedom-loving leader aspires to be, and every freedom-loving person aspires to follow. Yet he led his country in doing things that no freedom-loving leader would ever want to do, and that no freedom-loving person would want him to do.
Lincoln didn’t do these things because he wanted to do them. He did them because someone had to. Which remarkably was a principle that guided every decision he made.
It would forever be a mistake to presume that Lincoln wanted to fight the Civil War; he didn’t, but knew it had to be done. Lincoln must have wanted desperately to negotiate with the Confederates, but knew that he could not. Conversely, he must have wanted desperately to refuse Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) permission to travel to Richmond in order to negotiate with Jefferson Davis, but allowed him to do so anyway. He could not have possibly wanted to allow his son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt) to enlist in the army, but eventually had to relent. And even though he wanted to mourn for his dead son William (a victim of typhoid fever), he knew that he had to refuse himself that simple luxury.
He couldn’t have done any of these things because he wanted to, but because he knew that he had to.
A remarkable contrast was Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). A radical through and through, Stevens was prepared to forsake what had to be done – reuniting the North and South by peaceful means – in favour of what he wanted to do: take various forms of revenge on the South, including seizing every dime of property in the South. (It’s quite a contrast to the peace terms eventually dictated to General Robert E Lee: “put down your arms, go home and fight no more.’”) Even on the one occasion in which he did what he had to do, rather than what he wanted to do – when he compromised by declaring the 13th amendment provided for equality before the law only – he still found a way to be true to his own desires.
Such was the freedom Stevens enjoyed; a freedom that Lincoln himself didn’t, not even when the war was finally over, nor when the battle to end slavery had finally ended with complete, undeniable finality.
The battle over slavery, in the legal sense, wasn’t actually one that could be settled by the war. Lincoln relied on his war powers to preserve the Emancipation Proclamation, as it was arguably unconstitutional – hinging on whether or not he could or would deem the Confederacy to be a belligerent enemy state. Unwilling to recognize the Confederacy as a foreign state, and considering only the rebels within them to have renounced their citizenship, Lincoln was forced to recognize that the laws of those Southern States were still in effect – including the laws that recognized black slaves as property, and thus empowered slavery.
And so even as Lincoln’s conscience carried the weight of the armed conflict, he found himself compelled to test his will on the battle – waged within Congress and outside of Congress – to pass the 13th Constitutional Amendment, the amendment that declared slavery to be unconstitutional.
The war against the Confederacy at least could be won with something so simple – although horrifying – as bullets and bayonets. The battle to win the passage of the 13th Amendment was waged with equal parts moral appeal, patronage, and even corruption. Perhaps this once the outright buying of votes could be forgiven on grounds more than simply the nature of the politics of the day.
The White House was a very different place in those days – unimaginably different, by today’s standards. Anyone could walk right in and have some time with the President, even if they usually had to wait in line in order to do it. At times people were known to sleep in the halls while waiting for Lincoln – and amazingly, this was allowed. All despite the number of assassination plots against Lincoln (which Bill O’Reilly presents in rich detail in his book Killing Lincoln, which I highly recommend).
Congress – particularly the House of Representatives – was not nearly so different as it is now. But when Congressmen must excel at not only effectively making their point, but also in cleverly insulting their adversaries, a film could do worse than to cast Tommy Lee Jones in that particular role. Jones provides the film with many moving moments, but the most so of them actually eludes him.
Perhaps the film’s most poignant moment comes at the beginning of the film: for the black soldiers fighting in the Union ranks, the war was very different. To them, it was more than simply a civil war – it was their own little American Revolution, in which they fought to forever banish a regime that had offered them only oppression in favour of a newer, more robust Republic. Perhaps Lincoln himself realized this when a young black soldier repeats for Lincoln his Gettysburg address: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. That government of the people, for the people, by the people shall not perish from the Earth.”
Even then Lincoln knew that this Republic wouldn’t be built in a single day, or even over the four years of the Civil War. The forecast post-war conflict between Lincoln and Stevens – a political confrontation averted by John Wilkes Booth’s bullet – made that point crystal clear.
Daniel Day Lewis’ performance presents Lincoln precisely as he was: perpetually exhausted, torn between the demands of his wife (played by Sally Fields), the prosecution of the war effort, and the political wrangling necessary to end slavery once and for all. Aged far beyond his years, with an iron will but the wisdom to fight only the battles that he knew he must.
Making a film about Abraham Lincoln cannot be an easy task. It took Steven Spielberg to do it this well. To fill Lincoln’s boots will be much harder still: we may never see another like him.
Patrick Ross is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist