This is one of the best films of 2015.
At the heart of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is a quiet scene between President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and two young men, Samuel Beckwith (Adam Driver) and David Homer Bates (Drew Sease), in an otherwise empty telegraph cipher office. Lincoln has to make a crucial decision: Does he consider a peace proposal from a Confederate delegation on its way to Washington, and thus perhaps immediately end the bloody Civil War that has claimed the lives of more than half a million Americans, knowing that it would doom his attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, officially banning slavery in the United States? Or does he try to legally solidify and extend his Emancipation Proclamation by getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed during a narrow window of opportunity (during the lame duck session of Congress between his re-election and second inauguration) at the cost of extending the war?
Invoking language from the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."), Lincoln thinks out loud, asking the young men philosophical questions and telling a story about... geometry. The movie, written by Tony Kushner ("Munich," "Angels in America") and "based in part" on the nonfiction book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (you can view/download .pdf of script here -- I highly recommend reading it after you've seen the movie), achieves an exquisite balance of language and imagery:
Euclid's first common notion is this: "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other."
Homer doesn't get it; neither does Sam.
That's a rule of mathematical reasoning. It's true because it works; has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is "self-evident."
D'you see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical law: it is a self- evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That's the origin, isn't it? That balance, that's fairness, that's justice.
The term "triangulation," as it is used in politics, is said to be a dirty word, a cynical tactic. But in this case, as one modern strategist phrased it, "isn't about compromising on principles or policies, but about preempting conservative wedge issues by addressing them through progressive policies" -- or, finding a way to accomplish your goals without alienating one side or another, through careful use of language and limits. This may involve strategic tradeoffs or compromises on short-term goals in order to position yourself to accomplish greater ones in the future. Think about the practical, empirical wisdom in those words: It's true because it works.
"Lincoln" weaves images of such triangulation through the entire film. (Spoilers.) It's even there in the visual positioning of the three men in the telegraph room, and in the last sentence of the speech above: balance, fairness, justice. It's there in the House of Representatives, with the Lincoln Republicans on one side of the chamber, the opposition Democrats on the other and the Speaker (or the member holding the floor) at the front, moderating between them. At times, the apex of the triangle is reversed, shifted to a point in the balcony at the rear of the hall, where Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) or various Negro citizens might be witnessing the historic proceedings.
And Lincoln must emotionally triangulate between his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the Union army, and his wife, who fears losing another son. If Robert were to die, she says, "How would I ever forgive you?" And should they forbid him to enlist, Lincoln says, "You imagine Robert will forgive us if we continue to stifle his very natural ambition?"
The movie is essentially about the "political genius" behind the party of Lincoln's maneuvering to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House. Among the methods employed are barters, bribes, bait, betrayal, backpedaling and blackmail -- or, more or less, tactics redolent of those things. As staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) phrases it: "The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."
So, is "Lincoln" simply an endorsement of the argument that the end justifies the means? No, it's not that simple. Stevens, for example, is a lifelong advocate of full citizenship rights for black Americans, yet Lincoln asks that he temper his remarks before the House "so as not to frighten our conservative friends?" The conservatives fear that banning slavery is the first step down the proverbial slippery slope, leading to enfranchisement not only for Negro males but -- horror of horror! -- for women! (Sure enough, black men got the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870 -- though Jim Crow laws preventing them from voting in some states were not officially abolished until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women did not obtain suffrage until the ratification of the Nineteeth Amendment in 1920.)
In the interest in winning the short-term battle, so that the greater ones can be fought another day, Stevens winds up compromising his own views, repeating the carefully worded statement when the Democrats attempt to get him to declare his belief in "full equality": "I don't hold with equality in all things only with equality before the law and nothing more." At least he gets a triumphant rhetorical victory when he turns the tables on his interrogator:
How can I hold that all men are created equal, when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits impermeable to reason with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood! You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you! [...]
Yet even you, Pendleton, who should have been gibbetted for treason long before today, even worthless unworthy you ought to be treated equally before the law!
Afterwards, Stevens -- visibly depleted by the compromise he's been forced to make, is accosted by abolitionist colleague Asa Vintner Litton (Steven Spinella), who shames him for denying Negro equality: "Have you lost your very soul, Mr. Stevens? Is there nothing you won't say?" Stevens responds in a rock-solid, measured tone: "I want the amendment to pass. So that the Constitution's first and only mention of slavery is its absolute prohibition. For this amendment, for which I have worked all of my life and for which countless colored men and women have fought and died and now hundreds of thousands of soldiers -- no, sir, no, it seems there is very nearly nothing I won't say."
There's a time to speak out, and there's a time to hold your tongue in service of a larger strategy, greater goals. In one of the movie's most beautiful speeches (delivered with a warmth and subtlety I did not expect from an actor as bombastic as Day-Lewis), Lincoln describes his constitutional predicament and tells a story about having to navigate through several contingencies and to make arguments he did not believe in so that he could affirm greater principles that he did, as when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation:
... I decided that the Constitution gives me war powers, but no one knows just exactly what those powers are. Some say they don't exist. I don't know. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution, which I decided meant that I could take the rebels' slaves from 'em as property confiscated in war. That might recommend to suspicion that I agree with the rebs that their slaves are property in the first place. Of course I don't, never have, I'm glad to see any man free, and if calling a man property, or war contraband, does the trick... Why I caught at the opportunity.
Now here's where it gets truly slippery. I use the law allowing for the seizure of property in a war knowing it applies only to the property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations. But the South ain't a nation, that's why I can't negotiate with 'em. So if in fact the Negroes are property according to law, have I the right to take the rebels' property from 'em, if I insist they're rebels only, and not citizens of a belligerent country? And slipperier still: I maintain it ain't our actual Southern states in rebellion, but only the rebels living in those states, the laws of which states remain in force. The laws of which states remain in force. That means, that since it's states' laws that determine whether Negroes can be sold as slaves, as property -- the Federal government doesn't have a say in that, least not yet --
a glance at Seward, then:
-- then Negroes in those states are slaves, hence property, hence my war powers allow me to confiscate 'em as such. So I confiscated 'em. But if I'm a respecter of states' laws, how then can I legally free 'em with my Proclamation, as I done, unless I'm cancelling states' laws? I felt the war demanded it; my oath demanded it; I felt right with myself; and I hoped it was legal to do it, I'm hoping still.
He looks around the table. Everyone's listening.
Two years ago I proclaimed these people emancipated -- "then, thenceforward and forever free." But let's say the courts decide I had no authority to do it. They might well decide that. Say there's no amendment abolishing slavery. Say it's after the war, and I can no longer use my war powers to just ignore the courts' decisions, like I sometimes felt I had to do. Might those people I freed be ordered back into slavery? That's why I'd like to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House, and on its way to ratification by the states, wrap the whole slavery thing up, forever and aye. As soon as I'm able. Now. End of this month. And I'd like you to stand behind me. Like my cabinet's most always done.
A moment's silence, broken by a sharp laugh from Seward.
As the preacher said, I could write shorter sermons but once I start I get too lazy to stop.
There's the triangulation motif again -- using the logic of indirection, not unlike the ways a magician might use skillful distraction to pull off a little sleight-of-hand. It's introduced in the opening scene (after a brief montage of filthy, bloody battle), which finds Lincoln talking with two black Union soldiers, Private Harold Green (Colman Domingo) and Corporal Ira Clark (David Oyelowo)-- the former personable and polite, the latter making full use of the opportunity to push the President for greater equality beginning with equal pay for colored soldiers, then Negro commissioned officers and, maybe in a hundred years, the vote. Lincoln attempts to chart a course between them, to keep the conversation light and convivial by making jokes about his haircut, while acknowledging his awareness that the Union still has a long way to go with civil rights.
Suddenly, the triangle expands as a pair of nervous white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) appear on the other side of Lincoln and nervously begin trying to outdo each other in reciting the Gettysburg Address. Corporal Clark concludes the scene, and the conversation, by reciting the rest of the Gettysburg Address as he walks off to rejoin his regiment, letting Lincoln know just how closely he holds those ideals to his heart.
A few more things about "Lincoln":
I can't think of another movie that looks quite like this -- the interiors in cold, dark shades of blue and green, brown and black; hints of sepia in the pale lamplight and wintery, filtered sunlight. These spaces where backroom deals are plotted and struck are shrouded in smoke and shadows. The public arena of the House chamber is illuminated by the light of day, but the hidden agendas at play are no less murky.
Finally, I want to tip my stovepipe hat to Daniel Day-Lewis for what I believe is his finest performance since "My Left Foot" -- which, I think, was the first time I saw him. I have not been a fan of his calculating, showboating, "Look-at-me-I'm-acting!" style (like Olivier, another "great British actor," , but here I felt he was completely immersed in the character. For once, I forgot I was watching DDL, and really felt like I was in the presence of Abraham Lincoln. (Hey, is this what we were supposed to feel in Disneyland's audio-animatronic "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln"?) Seriously, I think it's a great performance -- tender, sad, warm, ferocious. But that's the character of the man he's playing. It's a breakthrough for the actor, I think -- like when Meryl Streep finally warmed up in "Silkwood." I hope Mr. Day-Lewis wins some prestigious awards for his work in this picture.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
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