The 2012 movie "Lincoln" tells us all we need to know about Abe Lincoln and his family. The nugget, in this case, is the work of this iconic man to get the 13th Amendment passed. The House of Representatives was going to have to be manipulated and cajoled. We learn that the rebel states were closer to getting what they wanted, or much of it, than we think today.
Yes, there was a fair amount of war weariness in the North. How could there not be? General Lee was actually rather astute in thinking that the Gettysburg campaign - the invasion of the North as it were - would push the North into some degree of capitulation. Even when the war ended, the South could flirt with getting pretty generous terms: this happened with General Sherman's negotiations with Southern interests at the end.
We all know that ultimately the South became the epitome of "loser." When a legal mind seeks to portray a certain conflict as having a clear, unequivocal loser, that person makes an analogy with the Civil War and the Confederates.
The movie showed Lincoln not so much as some divinely-inspired figure worthy of a monument, as a very sharp political mind. His political talent is unmistakable. I have suggested since seeing Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" that it is the best presentation available - movie or book - for understanding what the political process is. The essence of politics is the defining feature of "Lincoln." As such I bestow the highest compliments.
On the other side of the coin, the movie has little intrinsic entertainment value. I told a friend: "Young people would be monumentally bored by this movie." So much of it simply shows people sitting around and talking. It even began boring me at a point. Shame on me? Well, this is a movie where we know the outcome: no suspense there. We just view the unfolding talks leading up to the kind of victory the Union sought. We see the sausage-making in the political process. The movie can make you cynical if you aren't already.
We'd all like to think the Civil War's outcome was simply a result of a superior moral cause. That's what we'd like to teach kids in their civics lessons. In reality, the South came close to having some of their objectives realized. Lincoln rejected notions of compromise. Even with untold thousands of young men getting mowed down at places like Gettysburg, the Union had to bite the bullet, so to speak.
The issue of slavery was like abortion today: one side will be totally intransigent. Civilized conversations become impossible. Buried in the subconsciousness of Southern citizens was the idea that slavery was not going to be serviceable much longer. They knew it. Lincoln saw the 13th Amendment as the wedge that was necessary to apply. It was his signature accomplishment. It was far from routine achieving it.
The movie has Lincoln's sheer political genius on display. As such it's a biopic, I would argue, because it gives us the sheer essence of the man. We don't see any flashbacks of the young Abe. We see Abe at perhaps the most pivotal point of this continent's history.
The screenplay is largely inspired by a Doris Kearns Goodwin book. You remember, the author disgraced by plagiarism sins. Doris remains highly regarded in the circles that count. That's more than you can say for a former member of the St. Francis MN school board. Odd: the twists and turns of life.
I can't imagine kids liking the movie "Lincoln." Adults sitting around talking. Some battle scenes might have engaged better. The military is simply an extension of the political process. Unless there's some sort of coup, it's those adults sitting around tables and deliberating, that determines the outcome. General Grant of course would eventually become president. In the end we learn that the battlefield was Grant's true home. He was saved financially by his memoirs, guided by Mark Twain.
I must compliment "Lincoln" on authenticity in terms of dim lighting. This was a brave step by the filmmaker. Dull lighting might just be seen as dull lighting. But it was the mid-19th Century before electricity. The authentic dull lighting seems to give a depressing patina to the movie. This is overcome by the grand political cause being orchestrated.
Lincoln fears that his dramatic Emancipation Proclamation could be put aside once the guns go silent. The returning slave states could knock down the proposed 13th Amendment. Time is of the essence in getting the amendment passed. War's end is clearly nearing. The border states suggest some ambivalence. Lincoln wants the slavery issue to be completed before war's end.
To what extent should the Confederate government be engaged in negotiations, if at all? A key player is Francis Preston Blair. Blair's influence is a wild card. Expedience forces Lincoln to give Blair room to negotiate. The "Radical Republican" faction won't stand for a negotiated peace that doesn't extinguish slavery. Lincoln needs Blair's support. To repeat: We see sausage-making. Lincoln and his secretary of state work to get some Democratic Party support. Lincoln likes the opportunity to work on the substantial number of lame duck Democrats. Perhaps patronage jobs can be dangled!
An impending vote on the 13th Amendment hovers over the House floor, as rumors circulate that Confederate envoys are possibly already in town, ready to negotiate. But are they? This may present the chief suspense in the movie. I laughed as a Lincoln critic said the great man employed a "lawyer's dodge." Lincoln was employing deliberate ambiguity. He had bought time, and the vote proceeds. The 13th Amendment passes by a mere two votes.
We see the president visiting the Petersburg VA battlefield. He speaks with General Grant. Grant famously approached the Civil War as simply "a job to be done" - no sense of pageantry or drama. Grant receives the surrender from Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. I'm still a little confused as to who tipped his hat first, as Lee got ready to depart on his horse. Was it Grant or Lee? I've seen it both ways.
The movie continues up through Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater. That derringer was really a pretty weak weapon BTW. Kudos to actor Tommy Lee Jones on his portrayal of fervent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Let's acknowledge Daniel Day-Lewis is Lincoln.
Also, music man John Williams gives us a banjo accompaniment when we see three manipulative lobbyists do their thing: they are "political fixers" who strive to stay "just inside" what's legal. The trio are buoyant and unfazed about what they're doing. They are hired by Secretary of State William Seward.
"Lincoln" is a celebration of how the political process ultimately pushes morality to the forefront. Would that we could accomplish this more on morality's purest terms. We are so human an animal.
Thanks to our Morris MN Public Library for having this DVD to check out.
A final note: Spielberg's Lincoln does not speak in the kind of deep, resonating voice we might expect of a major historical figure. No sound recording equipment then, of course. I was reminded of the book "Timeline" by Michael Crichton. Crichton indicated in the book, that Abe Lincoln actually spoke in a rather high and raspy voice. Also, General George Washington did not stand toward the front of the boat when crossing the Delaware, not like in the famous painting. Washington was huddled under some wraps to stay warm, rather inconspicuous on the boat seat. We learned this through time travel. Spielberg's Lincoln has the kind of voice, probably noted through historical recollection, consistent with what Crichton reported. Congratulations.