Monday, December 3, 2012

Honest Abe makes sausage

“If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

-Otto von Bismarck

I had mixed feelings when I  found out that Steven Spielberg was making a movie about Abraham Lincoln. The history junkie in me was excited, but I feared that Spielberg's penchants for extraneous special effects and telegraphed melodrama (cue:  John Williams' soaring strings) could muddle one of the most important chapters in our national narrative. 

Fortunately, curiosity and strong reviews propelled me to a multiplex to see "Lincoln," where I found that my misgivings had been unwarranted.

Despite its grand historical scope and long running time, "Lincoln" has a tight storyline. The entire movie takes place in January of 1865, and most of the scenes are closed-door discussions between powerful men with a lot of facial hair. "Lincoln" would be a natural fit for the stage, which is not surprising, since the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Angels in America."

Daniel Day-Lewis is a subdued, subtle Abraham Lincoln. Other than a handful of instances where he's pushed to assert himself, he remains calm, almost retiring, and frequently leavens tense moments with humorous anecdotes. Yet behind his relaxed exterior is a stubborn willfulness to do the right thing, political expedience be damned. 

Though the developments of January 1865 were clearly more momentous than the changes of the past four years, a number of historical parallels with the present are embedded in "Lincoln." 

The movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," which told how Lincoln - like Barack Obama after him - surrounded himself with independent-minded advisers, as he placed a higher premium on problem-solving than ego-stroking and blind loyalty. And Lincoln's combination of a first-class temperament and a focus on the long game bears an unmistakable similarity to our current president, another Illinois politician of limited experience and big visions who arrived in the White House at a perilous moment. The two men were even sworn in for their first terms on the same Bible (above).

The plot revolves around Lincoln's full-court press to move the 13th Amendment (to end slavery) through the House of Representatives before the close of the Civil War.  Early on, William Seward (Lincoln's Secretary of State, played by David Strathairn), tries to convince Lincoln that he should give up on the amendment in exchange for the South's imminent surrender. Key political ally Preston Blair (leader of the conservative Republicans/Hal Holbrook) has the same advice. Lincoln patiently hears them out and proceeds to ignore their half-a-loaf thinking, as Obama did after the 2010 election cycle, when some of his cabinet officials suggested that he abandon comprehensive healthcare reform in favor of incremental measures.  

While trying to placate allies on his right, Lincoln also works on Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to secure liberal Republican votes on his left. Stevens, head of the House Ways and Means Committee, is an ardent, outspoken abolitionist who thinks Lincoln is timid, and not moving fast enough (a criticism Obama has repeatedly gotten from the left, though he has done more for social progress than any president we've had in four decades).

Throughout the movie, Lincoln engages in the kind of tactics that lead faux populists to see all politicians as a morally inferior, self-serving breed:  he obscures important life-and-death information (about his stalling the Civil War peace process) from friend and foe alike while paid surrogates alternately issue threats and offer plum appointments to representatives to secure their votes

Undoubtedly, some politicians have little or no concern for the human condition, but all politicians are not created equal. "Lincoln" shows an exceptional leader performing a very delicate dance (under tremendous pressure) among competing interests for the greater good of humanity.    

And though ending slavery - like creating a national healthcare system - was an urgent moral imperative, Lincoln (and Obama) had to overcome hardcore obstructionism from congressional reactionaries backed by powerful and parasitic economic interests. In both cases, Americans a century-and-a half removed from these battles will scratch their heads and wonder "What the hell took us so long?"


  1. This is a great essay, Dan. As always, I must wait until the movie comes up on the idiot box (in HD, though). That said, your parallels into the present are so, so, so appreciated. I guess a lot of folks despised Mr. Lincoln the way they do Mr. Obama now. That may be a prerequisite for being a great American President. It's funny, though. Because we are living this moment of history and that's who we have as a leader. Funny ... and sad, since the great grandchildren of the haters will be learning about Obama alongside Abe. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for the comment, David. In a eulogy for his father, who'd lost his Senate seat for opposing the Vietnam War and supporting civil rights measures, Al Gore said that you can judge a man by his enemies. When challenged, vested/exploitative economic interests (and their junior partner, outdated social mores) invariably fight to the death and create enough sound and fury to make common-sense reforms seem "controversial" in the moment. But ultimately, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

  3. This is a great article! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and posted it to my T and FB page!

  4. Wonderful comments, Dan. Thank you. This movie was much, much better than I had hoped thanks to the wonderful alchemy formed between Tony Kushner's words and Daniel-Day Lewis' performance. I think one would have to go back to George C. Scott's Patton for a comparably strong movie performance by a male actor (or, for a female actor, the last performance by Meryl Streep). From a moral/political standpoint, the movie serves as a helpful reminder that there is no such thing as a golden age graced by purely noble people achieving purely noble ends through purely noble means. Not even Lincoln qualifies to match our heroic dreams. It reminds me of the wonderful exchange in the Gospels between the rich young ruler and Jesus. When asked by the young man, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus prefaces his response with this stunner: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." I wonder if Lincoln reminds us that goodness is something we pursue rather than something we possess.

    Steve Savides

  5. Thank you for a fine post, Dan. You convince me, with clarity and power, of the real parallels between Lincoln's and Obama's experience and behavior in office. I agree with you that history will find Obama to have been one of our greatest presidents, certainly one of the most selfless; somebody who, like Lincoln, was willing to give everything he had for his country.

  6. Just saw this film this eve and all during the movie it dawned on me how similar these two men actually are. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and this blog!

  7. The review certainly makes me want to see the film.

  8. I went to see LINCOLN on Nov. 24, 2012. I loved it. Everyone did such a great job! Mr. Lewis was a wonderful Lincoln! I have watched and enjoyed Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck portray Abraham Lincoln in movies and I appreciated what each brought to the part. LINCOLN should have won more awards!
    President Lincoln was a good man with enormous moral courage and a deep desire to put our country back together, never to part again. I love him for all that he did for our country!
    I enjoyed your writing very much, Mr. Benbow.