Tuesday, November 27, 2012


The film “Lincoln” now showing at Sisters Movie House is well worth the two-and-a-half hours of seat time. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the 16th President is uncanny — something beyond acting — and the rest of the cast is excellent as well.

It’s talky and long, as befits an essentially political drama centered around the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States, so it may not appeal if you’re simply looking for entertainment.

The film’s value is more than cinematic. It’s a good reminder after a bruising election in a starkly divided political culture that American politics has often (if not always) been built more on contention than consensus. We tend to think that our present partisan bickering is worse than what has gone before; it’s good to be reminded that 19th Century politics was practically a contact sport. Some of the personal vitriol that is flung about in “Lincoln” would scorch the eyebrows of our snottiest commentators.

As the film makes clear, this signal piece of legislation got passed mainly through arm-twisting and blandishments, not through pure oratorical persuasion. It is an example of the adage apocryphally attributed to Bismark: “To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.'"

No Marble Man could have orchestrated the sausage-making of Civil War era politics. It took a president who was a savvy operator and that is the Lincoln portrayed in the film. Here is a president who won’t lie to his allies… exactly… but is more than willing to shade the truth and allow them to believe things that ain’t necessarily so.

Abraham Lincoln is often treated as the closest thing we have to an American political saint, but he was far from that. In fact, the portrayal by many of his contemporaries of the president as a tyrant was not far off the mark. The film doesn’t shy away from this; Lincoln acknowledges that he took immense wartime powers upon himself because he believed it was necessary to preserve the Union.

And perhaps it was…

Yet, preserving the Union in and of itself was legally problematic. The seceding Southern states had a very strong case that the Union was a voluntary construct at its founding and that no state would have entered into it without the clear right to leave it at will. Lincoln simply refused to accept this premise, declaring said states to be in rebellion. And he used extralegal means to win the war and preserve the Union.

As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens asks pointedly in the film: “Did you  conquer us with democracy?”

“Lincoln” offers up plenty  of resonance.  We have seen our executive take still more immense power upon itself to combat terrorism. And we have seen a dysfunctional Congress churn over legislation with the power to profoundly shape the future. History offers us a different lense with which to view our own times. That’s what “Lincoln” ultimately does, and does well. It’s worth soaking it in.

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