Lincoln (2012)

Last night I ventured to the lively and quaint downtown historical theater in my home town to a showing of Lincoln (2012, PG-13), the much acclaimed Spielberg film starring Daniel Day Lewis in the title role, for which he just won an Oscar this week. In my opinion, the film deserves all the accolades it has gotten.

The world of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 America is a dismal one, as the Civil War rages on, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Lincoln’s mission is to bring an end to the bloodshed, and to pass the monumental 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, abolishing slavery of African Americans in the U.S. forever. It’s a time sensitive issue, though, for if the Union and Confederacy just so happen to make peace before the amendment is passed, the southern states will obliterate any chance of it becoming a law. Lincoln is torn; Early peace would save thousands of lives, but the 13th Amendment would guarantee the liberty of an entire population. The movie is largely about this struggle.

Lincoln was an excellent film, portraying intense perseverance in the face of evil. Director Steven Spielberg brought in a handful of much loved and talented actors of the cinema. Daniel Day-Lewis was fantastic as the soft-spoken and kind (but steadfast and firm) President Abraham Lincoln, as he leads his faltering country through the bloodiest war it has ever seen, all the while fighting for the prohibition of one of the most heinous violations of humanity, slavery. He is patient to no end, tolerating the endless and seemingly trifling petitions of the “common folk,” and laughing off the rather, excitableness, of his administration and slams from his political opponents with ease. In the heat of all that’s going on, though, Lincoln remains completely devoted to his family, though perhaps more to his young son Tad than to his college-boy, Robert. He is both merciful and graceful, pardoning many deserters, and is undeniably full of courage, making decisions which very well might turn away his supporters, friends, and wife.

Sally Field is a wonderful Mary Todd Lincoln, driven almost insane by their son Willie’s death (almost two years prior at this point in the story), but does her best to stay strong and wear a face of bravery for the sake of the nation. Her relationship with Lincoln is, at times, pretty explosive, but she supports him in almost everything and obviously loves her family very much. Joseph Gordon-Levitt played the dashing and inspiring young Robert Lincoln, a law student with a tremendous longing to join the army. 

At the time of the Civil War, religion still flowed deep in America’s blood, so it was only fitting that this film was laced with great spiritual content. Spielberg does not shy away from it, but rather seeks to capture the religious passions of the time, both on the side of the abolitionists and on the side of those who utilized religion to justify the institution of slavery. A young, fiery, N.Y. Representative shouts to the House, “Congress must never declare equal those whom God has created unequal!” a claim, of course, which has no foundation. There is talk of “insulting God”; many of the African American characters believe in the passage of the 13th Amendment as an act of God for their liberation, so there is a tacit nod to the Christian idea of God's providence in the direction of human affairs.

Even Lincoln is presented as a man of faith. One of Lincoln’s unlived dreams (according to the film) was to visit the Holy Land and walk in the places where David and Solomon walked before, something he and Mary discuss while on a buggy ride on Good Friday afternoon. Mary, joking, calls herself a “soothsayer.” Whether or not this was one of Lincoln's aspirations, I do not know; I do know that the real Lincoln was basically an agnostic who approached religion with a dry and cynical sense of disparaging humor, despite the hagiographical attempts of those who try to present Lincoln as a devoted Christian. I'm not sure the film is trying to push the "Saint Lincoln" myth; by and large, it is about a man's attempt to wrestle with his conscience in the face of immense political opposition, a man who is very real in his passions as well as his failings. The film certainly does not try to make him look like a saint (Lincoln has a very foul mouth, for one thing), even though at times the character of Lincoln seems to transcend his time and place.

There is little indecent about this film, though there are few scenes that we could have done without. Mary is shown in a nightgown-like undergarment, and congressional abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) shares a bed with his black housekeeper, though the two seem like a companionable older married couple more than anything else. These scenes are brief, but regrettable and really add nothing to the story.

The violent content in the movie may be something of concern for younger viewers, as the opening scene includes multiple soldiers being graphically killed, a vivid conveyance of the real horrors of war. Men are stabbed with bayonets, shot, punched, and held in the mud to drown. Lincoln rides through a smoking battlefield, surrounded by unburied corpses. Robert follows two soldiers pushing a wheelbarrow through the camp – the contents turn out to be amputated limbs. Lincoln is shown dead on a bloody pillow after his assassination. There's a not a ton of this throughout the film, but enough to disturb the quaint of heart or the young viewer. I have also mentioned the foul language.

As for the historical accuracy of this film, a few things stood out to me as if they were out of place. I don't know a lot about Lincoln's history, and there are many Lincoln historians who are intimately familiar with the minutiae of Lincoln's life, so I might be totally wrong on some of the things that seemed out of place here. For one thing,  I wondered whether Lincoln really would have sworn so much, as there was quite a few instances of foul language; some Lincoln historians have argued that the film depicts him as too foul-mouthed. I also seriously doubt that Stevens was permitted to take home the one and only official copy of the 13th Amendment for the night. Many Lincoln aficionados objected to Lincoln slapping his son; there is no way to know whether Lincoln did this or not - contemporaries say he was very slow to anger, but of course one many be slow to anger with others but harsh with one's own family. Who knows.

One of the major historical blunders in the film is the depiction of congressmen voting by state delegations—an unfortunate confusion that conflates the voting practice of national political conventions with those of the House of Representatives.The Daily Beast has a comprehensive write up on the historical errors in the film for those buffs who care enough about Lincoln to want to look into it.

All that said, though, Lincoln was a terrific piece, thoroughly entertaining and inspiring in certain ways. It clearly depicted how sometimes, despite the sins and inabilities of those that surround us, something good can still come out of things; that God can write straight lines with crooked pencils. Whether or not it was historically accurate, the film was true to the nature of the time and the people living in it. Like any American president, Catholics must approach Lincoln with a bit of ambivalence, as too often they are mythologized as secular icons for the purpose of adding luster to the American political experiment and not necessarily to truth; Lincoln is no different, and to the extent that we are looking for truth or examples of right conduct, I would be wary. But, taken on its own terms as historical fiction, the film was very entertaining and engaging; the foul language was regrettable, as the few other scenes I mentioned. I give it a reluctant 2.5 out of 3.

By Iris