28 November 2012

Lincoln -- messy politics and moral ambiguity

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is the must-see movie in theaters right now, and not only because Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of the great war President is unlikely ever to be surpassed.  The movie is worthy of its daunting subject matter -- some of the most pivotal events and people of our country's history.  And it's a profound antidote to the simplistic moral certainties often found in movies (and politics), showing us the messiness and compromise of real-world politics and the ambiguity and uncertainty of serious moral questions.

To make sure we never forget the reality of the Civil War, the film opens with a battle scene, an ugly, bloody, grunting, hand-to-hand affair of desperate men struggling in mud while trying to bayonet each other to death.  The role of black soldiers in the Union war effort is repeatedly emphasized.  Black Americans were not mere passive beneficiaries of the abolitionists' work; these men, strongly motivated for obvious reasons, did much of the fighting that saved the country.

The movie actually covers just the last four months of Lincoln's life, and focuses on his effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery.  Somewhat jarringly, the party labels attached to progressives and reactionaries at that time were the reverse of today -- Lincoln and the abolitionists were Republicans, while the conservatives and fervent opponents of black freedom were Democrats.

As the story opens, the Senate has already passed the Amendment, but reaching the needed two-thirds majority in the House promises to be a struggle.  To win the necessary Democratic votes, Lincoln authorizes any tactic necessary.  Sleazy men are engaged as go-betweens; lucrative patronage jobs are offered to lame-duck Congressmen who will soon need employment; money changes hands under shady circumstances.  Lincoln personally goes to great lengths to suppress news of a Confederate peace overture, a development which could undermine support for the Amendment.  It's all underhanded and dirty, a perversion of democracy.  Today we're comfortable asserting that no political cause, no matter how righteous, could justify such tactics -- but what if that cause were the abolition of slavery?

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones is a joy to watch in the role) faces a moral dilemma familiar to progressives today.  Not only an abolitionist, he believes in full equality of the races -- in those days, a radical position few people would entertain.  The Amendment cannot afford to be associated with such an "extremist" stance; it would lose in a landslide if Congress believed it would lead not only to the end of slavery but eventually to full equality for blacks.  Stevens is eventually persuaded to repudiate his true beliefs on the House floor, for the greater good of passing the Amendment.  Today we know he was right, and his sudden "moderation" sticks in our throats as much as in his, especially since we know it took another century for effective civil and voting rights for black Americans to be won.  Yet if Stevens had insisted on speaking out for what we all now know to be truth and justice, the Amendment might well have failed, and an achievable milestone been lost.

The risk of the perfect being the enemy of the good comes up again and again.  During one raucous House debate, a conservative Congressman invokes the slippery slope -- if slavery is abolished, what else may follow?  Votes for blacks?  Intermarriage?  One cannot avoid thinking of the slippery-slope arguments raised today by opponents of gay equality.

Lincoln himself is at times genuinely torn over the Confederate offer of a negotiated peace.  End the war and its horrible slaughter now (at that point the Civil War had already cost more than 150 times as many American lives as the whole Iraq war), or press on for total victory and get the Amendment passed, at the cost of even more lives, but winning results that would at least make the sacrifice worthwhile?

Lincoln's conflict with his wife and elder son over the latter's desire to enlist in the army is a mere sub-plot here, but brings out enough emotion and moral struggle for a whole movie of its own.

The film's look draws us effortlessly into the world of 1865.  Everything is brown and sepia and murky; cigars are smoked constantly and almost everyone over 30 looks unhealthy; the fussy over-complicated drab clothing and the variegated and spectacularly ugly beards evoke the dawn of the dreary Victorian age.  You are there, you are in 1865.

The script is a triumph and will make you want to see the movie again just to make sure you didn't miss anything.  So many movies these days spend millions on special effects, only to be sunk by weak writing; here, the spoken word gets its proper priority.

Performances are flawless across-the-board, and Day-Lewis is already considered a strong Oscar candidate.  Lincoln apparently had a penchant for lengthy metaphors and anecdotes which sometimes baffled his listeners, and he could be quick to anger when provoked.  You get the real Lincoln here, good and bad.

The question of whether Lincoln was gay, as some real evidence suggests, is not raised.  In this film, it would have been a distraction.  Those who are aware of the possibility will see the irony that he fought for the liberation of one brutalized part of the American people, at a time when the liberation of his own was unimaginable and would remain so for a century.

In our own time when politics is so clogged with absolutist and no-compromise attitudes, it's well worth being so effectively reminded that not all questions have easy answers, and that doing the right thing can sometimes be not only difficult but actually repugnant.


Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

One of the best posts I've seen about this film. I am interested in seeing it--and good work in pointing out that politics IS messy.

28 November, 2012 04:00  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Appreciate the detailed review of this movie Infidel, your about as detailed on film as I am on music. I just seen a couple dayz ago there was a movie on Lincoln, and thought, "Wow! this would be one to check out", being I hadnt been to a movie in probably 5 year's or so I reckon. I did get to see Prometheus, but I have it on DVD/ Blu- Ray, and I really enjoyed it ... seem's like the closing left it wide open for a sequel too. But I just dont get to movie's too much ... this really sound's tight though, my grandkid's told me to see Ted with them, but didnt get to make it. I would guess President Obama seen this one being the big Lincoln fan he is too. Kind of weird how different the Democrat's and Republican's are today than yesteryear eh? I will try to squeeze this in later or this evening probably since I have to run to Oklahoma tomorrow.

28 November, 2012 05:49  
Blogger Grundy said...

Tommy Lee Jones was great....but he was Tommy Lee Jones, which means that he's always great, but that is just who he is. I was never unaware that the actor was on screen acting.

DDL disappears into every role, truly an awesome actor.

29 November, 2012 16:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

MM: Thanks -- I hope you do see it.

RC: Too bad this one doesn't have much potential for a sequel -- "Lincoln 2; The Revenge":-)

Grundy: Hopefully they'll both get Oscars for it, and Sally Field too.

30 November, 2012 07:17  
Blogger Tommykey said...

I think DDL may have been the inspiration for the extreme method acting character Robert Downey played in Tropic Thunder.

"I don't break character until I've done the DVD commentary."

30 November, 2012 10:25  
Blogger Paul said...

Talk about political compromise today, it's not possible.
Imagine compromising on slavery to create a new nation. The founders left that issue to a future president.
Good intentions aren't good enough, and getting people to do the right thing includes some distasteful decisions.
What would Obama be willing to do if multiple States truly moved to leave the Union?

30 November, 2012 22:25  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TK: I'm not familiar with Tropic of Thunder -- I'll look it up.

Steve: Compromise with the Republicans of today seems very difficult. All we can do is defeat them.

There will not be a new wave of secessions -- the numbers of people signing these idiotic petitions are tiny compared with state populations -- but I've seen a few hints that if anything like that did happen, it would be crushed with whatever level of military force turned out to be necessary, just as the treason of 1861 was. I can think of people I wouldn't mind seeing it happen to.

01 December, 2012 15:37  
Blogger Tommykey said...

Hopefully they'll both get Oscars for it, and Sally Field too.

Then she can give another one of her "You like me, you really, really like me!" acceptance speeches.

You gotta see Tropic Thunder. It's hilarious. Between Robert Downey's character getting deep into playing an African-American man to a cameo by Tom Cruise that is a total riot.

01 December, 2012 18:49  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I left a comment on this earlier. Don't know if Blogger dumped it in spam.

Anyway, I saw the film and thought it was excellent. Daniel Day Lewis was remarkable.

Sally Field managed to portray Mary Todd Lincoln just this side of crazy, and she was excellent as well.

I had read Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" a while back. The film was pretty much faithful to the book.

It is a film worth seeing more than once.

02 December, 2012 15:48  
Blogger Flying Junior said...

Excellent critique. Inspired me to se it last night. What I enjoy the most is the faithful recreation of the times. The gas chandeliers and telegraph receivers in the ready room. Of course all of the books and furniture looked to be almost one hundred and fifty years old, but yet it was remarkable.

I obtained a war-time print of Sandburg's Lincoln, a very rare piece in two volumes. The Prairie Years and The War Years. Certainly the books I valued most in my own collection even over my Wordsworth volumes.

I spent many happy hours pondering and poring over the collected anecdotes. I am convinced that no more stories exist about any other American. I am inclined to believe most of them although Sandburg has been accused of furthering the mythology.

Loved Daniel, Sally, Little Tad, Thaddeus, Seward. I really loved the guy who played representative Wood. Played to the hilt and what a marvelous physical type!

05 December, 2012 21:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TK: Thanks, it sounds worth checking out.

SK: I plan to see it again. I don't think one could catch all the subtleties from seeing it just once.

FJ: It really immerses you in the era. I'll have to watch Wood more closely next viewing.

06 December, 2012 04:18  
Anonymous Blurber said...

Haven't seen this yet, but it's obviously a must see.

The casualties in the Civil War were amazing; between 600.000 and 700.000 were killed.

By comparison, US killed in:

WW2 were 318,000
WW1 were 115,000
Vietnam were 56,000
Korea were 33,000

10 December, 2012 09:37  

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