Wednesday 30 January 2013

With charity for all

At the end of 1862, in the wake the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln took a bloody and ugly Civil War to a far higher level – he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  In bold and ringing words it was declared;

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...

I first heard this recited at the end of one episode of Ken Burn’s excellent TV documentary on the Civil War, contrasting images of brutalised slaves and black Union soldiers, all against a rousing chorus of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  It was an emotional moment.

Emotional indeed.  The only thing is that the proclamation itself, for all its nobility, was a wartime executive order, one based purely on the authority of the President.  It was not the law of the land and - without the sanction of Congress - it had no abiding legal validity.  In other words, those slaves forever free might just as quickly have been back in chains if the war had been brought to a quick conclusion and the President’s authority challenged by the courts.  Emancipation Proclamation or not, slavery was still the law of the land.

It was the movie Lincoln that brought this simple truth home to me, one that I had previously overlooked.  I’ve always admired Stephen Spielberg as a director, one of the great masters of the cinematic medium.  In Lincoln he has surpassed himself, just as Daniel Day-Lewis has in his depiction of the sixteenth President of the United States, at once full of folksy wisdom and political shrewdness of an unparalleled order.  The screenplay by Tony Kushner is a commendable reduction of Doris Kearns Godwin’s monumental The Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln down to manageable cinematic size.

Lincoln is not a biopic, not a log cabin to White House odyssey.  It is, rather, a bold focus on a narrow window of Lincoln's  political life – the attempt in January, 1865 to get the House of Representatives to pass a Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, already approved by the Senate, abolishing slavery altogether. 

This is real touch and go stuff; for the House has previously rejected the measure and the War is drawing to a close.  It’s quite conceivable that the struggle could have ended with the status quo ante bellum, settling nothing at all but the Southern States continuing membership of the Union. 

Even without the Southern representatives in Congress the matter is not clear cut.  Even within the President’s own Republican Party the matter is not clear cut.  The Radical Republicans, headed by Thaddeus Stevens – a scorching performance by a bewigged Tommy Lee Jones – believe in the equality of all.  But the Conservative Republicans, headed by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), are content to leave slavery in place, if only the war can be brought to an end. 

Sniping from the sidelines is the Democratic opposition, headed by George H. Pendleton (Pete McRobbie) and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).  Many of them are Confederate sympathisers; some of them are outright racists.  But so, too, are many on the Republican side, which forces Stevens to hold his oratorical fire on the issue of equality of the races during one crucial debate, simply to ensure that the Amendment stands a chance of passing. 

Overseeing it all is the President, the consummate ringmaster, well able to resort to high-minded rhetoric, political intrigue and wheeler-dealing as the occasion demands, even if it demands paying off opponents with promises of office.  All the balls are in the air.  Not only does he have to manage his party, his cabinet and Congress, he also has to manage his wife!  Here we have another great performance, Sally Field as the highly strung and borderline crazy Mary Todd Lincoln.  The scene between her and Stevens, whom she hated, at a White House reception positively sparks! 

Lincoln is my sort of move, an intelligent, well-crafted and highly literate depiction of one of the great crossroads in American history.  Although the President, to gain the support of the Conservative Republicans, has had to invite a Southern peace delegation north, unbeknown to Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn), he does his best to make sure that little progress is made, either in travels or in talks.  The truth is - something I had not previously considered -, until such time as the Fourteenth Amendment is passed, for the President the war had to go on.

I don’t want to give you the impression that Lincoln is a high school history lesson; it’s not. Despite the narrowness of focus it’s as exciting a piece of political drama and intrigue as I have ever seen.  There are also some wonderful comic moments, particularly those involving a team of none too scrupulous lobbyists, headed by James Spader as William Bilbo, on a mission to approach wavering Democrats with offers they can’t refuse!   

I really can’t praise Day-Lewis’ performance too highly, a statement I suspect is in danger of turning into a cliché.  I will be amazed if he is not recognised at the forthcoming Academy Awards, but the Academy has a track record of amazing me.  This is Lincoln as I imagine Lincoln, full of unaffected charm and cracker barrel wisdom, backed up by shrewdness, by an intellect as sharp as flint and by a natural ability to read and manage people. 

It should also be stressed that both director and actor have done an excellent job in chipping away at the legend to give us a wholly plausible human being.  Lincoln does not walk on water; he is shown as a tough political operator, as canny as they come; Honest Abe at one moment, Machiavellian Abe at the next.  The actor carries the man to perfection, even in the quiet, unassuming tones of his voice, quite a leap, since nobody alive has ever heard the real voice!

To manage a war, to manage a government, to manage a cabinet, to manage Congress, to manage all of this and the pressures of domestic life is the task of a Titan.  Lincoln captures something of the scale and sweep here, the narrowness of focus notwithstanding.  Spielberg handles his subject with masterful ease, eschewing some of the showmanship that he is noted for in past movies.  Even when we fast forward to April 1865 the end comes not, as one might have expected, in Ford’s Theatre, but another theatre altogether, where a show attended by Lincoln’s youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) is interrupted with news of the President’s assassination.

The movie finishes with a flash back to the second inaugural address, those wonderful words by a man who really did have malice towards none and charity for all.  At this point my tears are liberally flowing.  I had to wait until the end of the credits before risking a public appearance.   


  1. Lincoln indeed managed much, he even managed to get himself shot in the head which had the effect of making reconstruction a long painful process for most of the Southern States.

    1. It certainly was, especially with the Radical Republicans in the ascent.

  2. While I admire Lincoln's prose, I am not an admirer of his politics. Of course, he was not solely responsible for the worst calamity in US history, but his reputation depends more on his martyrdom than any clear-headed assessment of his personal character or political skill. During the emergency he failed to prevent, he single-handedly caused more damage to the constitution and the republic than any president before or since - though we may discover to our cost that Obama intends to outdo him. Lincoln's reputation has been inflated by all those survivors eager to cast the horrors of the Civil War as both inevitable and noble, when in truth it was no such thing. The same process has saved many a leader from a well-deserved hanging.

    Neither am I an admirer of Spielberg whose talent consists largely of stitching together memorably-crafted scenes from the work of other, greater directors of the past. I grant you his knowledge of old movies and his taste for a dramatic scene are impeccable, but he relies on the ignorance of his audience for the bulk of his reputation.

    I find myself wondering - why this movie, now? Is it simply that it is now 150 years since the events depicted? Or is there another purpose, a current political purpose behind this film? If so, what do you think it might be?

    1. You know, Calvin, as I've said before, there is an odd paradox right at the heart of American history - the country got rid of a king only to create kings, to entrench monarchy and all its powers right at the heart of the Constitution. While our kings and queens devolved their powers to Parliament, your kings gathered more and more personal prerogatives. "I have immense power", Lincoln declares at one point in the movie, and so he did. So far as I can see he stands - in complete contrast to Obama - as a real colossus in American history, especially as he was bookended by Buchanan on one side of the Civil War and Johnson and Grant on the other.

      I have Southern friends who would agree with you that Lincoln was indeed a catastrophe, a far greater tyrant than poor old misunderstood George III. But surely the greater catastrophe was the precipitate actions of those states that saw secession as the only response to a Lincoln presidency? They, by their actions, handed more power to the executive than it had ever had in the past, even under King Andrew Jackson. Lincoln would never have been able to achieve a fraction of what he did if Southern politicians had kept their heads. If he is indeed the greatest president in American history its largely owing to his Southern enemies.

      Unlike you I do admire Lincoln, while admitting his faults. Yes, he was a great manipulator, not at all the saintly figure of myth, but to have mastered that vessel in those currents, faced with reefs and shoals on all sides, was an astonishing achievement.

      Ah, Spielberg - a great manipulator of emotions! One either loves or one hates; there is no in between. Is there a political purpose behind this movie now? I honestly can't say. I saw The Iron Lady last year at this time. I don't think there was a political purpose to that, not one that I can detect anyway. Perhaps it's a seasonal thing. There again, you may have a point. Obama endorsed the book of the movie, so maybe he sees Lincoln as an endorsement of him. It's not.

  3. Why was there a need for civil war?

    Why not buy up all the slaves. Ban slavery and then set the slaves free?

  4. Indeed an excellent film. Another is Glory about a a regiment of black union soldiers during the civil war.

  5. There is plenty of blame to go round among the instigators of the Civil War. Damn fools, all of them. It is wrong, too, to imagine that their concerns of the time were the same as ours with our longer perspective. The US was much, much smaller in those days, and Europe and Canada both appeared a far greater threat if the Union should dissolve. Mexico was still pissed off about Texas and the SW. A fragmented US might have meant further Balkanization of the unsettled territories across the Mississippi - The United States might have devolved into another Europe or South America, with a future of perpetual petty warfare. I understand all that, and the fact that Lincoln was NOT a king, that he was limited in his actions by the need to build support among a fractious and argumentative Congress. Perhaps, had he lived, he might have undone some of his worst errors.

    Re: Spielberg. His first film, Duel, is quite good. Jaws is a brilliant parody of Moby Dick. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a wonderful homage to 1940s adventure serials. And, it is a lot of fun to spot the stolen scenes if you are familiar with a lot of old movies. Perhaps what I find lacking is the depth of allusion in movies that evolve from original stories by great writers, as opposed to a Frankenstein's monster of scenes patch-worked on a threadbare backing that barely holds together. But that describes a lot of Hollywood output in these times when most movie makers would rather remake than read.

    1. Calvin, yes, indeed. I personally see the Civil War as a consequence of what had been a less than perfect Union.

      Spielberg seduced me completely with ET, which I saw when I was about eight or so. I think I've now seen all of his movies, including Duel, a brilliant early effort. What I like about him is that, opposed to so many others, he attempts to tell a story.