Steven Spielberg is not only one of the great makers of blockbusters, he is also a great history teacher.
I know, your history teacher was better. At least more accurate. Less subjective.
C’mon, who’s kidding who? History is about story and the best history teachers are storytellers- every one with Some might help us better remember facts and figures better. Some might better cause us to remember the flow or themes of history. But almost no one is a better storyteller than Spielberg. And what other history teacher has a multi-million dollar budget?
Spielberg has now got a number of historical films under his belt: Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich, War Horse and now Lincoln. While others may have taken place in the past (e.g. 1941, Catch Me If You Can), there is less a sense of communicating anything about history. There is just a setting that the story takes place. All these films can best be called historic fiction, although there are parts of all these films that give us a sense of placing us in that historic setting and giving us a greater knowledge of what it meant to live in that time and place.
Like a good history teacher, it is not enough for us to just know the facts of the event, but to give us an interpretation of what the facts mean. In this way, we not only have a starting point for our own interpretation, but we will remember the facts better than if they are given to us in an Edward Murrow presentation.
As a presentation of history, I think that Lincoln is next to Schindler’s List in its greatness and moral complexity.
Certainly there are some stunning performances here. Tommy Lee Jones gives one of his best performances here (in my opinion, second only to No Country for Old Men). He balances the humor and power of the role of the radical Thaddeus Stevens perfectly. The whole ensemble was fantastic.
But this is the film in which I must declare that I have decided that Daniel Day Lewis is the best actor of our generation. Yes, I have seen him before and I’ve been impressed, but this performance is stunning. It isn’t an imitation, but a full embrace of a historic personage to such a degree that I suppose that I will never think about Lincoln without this performance again. DDL’s Lincoln isn’t the image of Lincoln I had in the past, who I considered brooding unless he was before an audience. DDL’s Lincoln is an image of perfectly controlled anger. He is furious at injustice, furious at his wife’s instability, at his son’s insistence to join the army, at his opposition’s unfairness—yet he knows that raging and yelling only increases his impotence. As a man sold out to create justice, he does only what is necessary to form a better family, a better government, a better nation.
Without spoilers, I just want to say one thing about the three climaxes of the film: the vote, the scene in Thaddeus Steven’s bedroom and the theatre. All three of these amazing scenes were done without the central character in sight. This is a brilliant choice to show us the impact of Lincoln’s work, because it is about what he did for others, no matter what the cost for himself.
Yes, there’s a lot of talking here. But it’s surrounded by great cinematography and imbued with one of the greatest dramas of American history. I will never forget it. 5/5
* * *
Meditation on the Politics of Lincoln
This meditation is necessarily full of spoilers of the film. You are warned.
I haven’t done reading on the historical accuracy of the film Lincoln. I know that it is based on a work of history, Team of Rivals, but I am not so naïve to think that the film does more than give generalities of the arguments and ideas and people involved.
Nevertheless, with what reading I have done, I find that the historic attitudes and the means and ways of politics in the film to be accurate, even if many of the specifics aren’t. (Again, I don’t know how accurate they are, they may very well be.)
Lincoln was an idealist placed in the middle of a political catfight. But he knew that there is no straight line in politics. To accomplish his goals he needed to hide them. To create justice, he had to remain “neutral” between injustice and justice.
Personally, I am much more attuned to Thaddeus Stevens, both in attitude and in approach. He is portrayed as a simple, moral man, angry and ideological, but he could destroy the whole process by his refusal to compromise. He stands with justice without compromise, without retreat and hopes that his constant harping on the truth might bring change.
Democracy must put aside such passion. Democracy demands that all sides make compromise with each other for the greater good. Lincoln understood this, and lived to push for justice in the midst of this system. A political saint who tells stories, worked for positive compromise, started a war for the greater good. A politician of the best kind—full of the lies and the egomania that all the best politicians have. Yet would slavery have been abolished without this man? He was a unique man, a “pure” man—but why should a nation be dependent on the unique powerful individual to create morality? Without the unique moral individual who is willing to take the compromise, democracy cannot work.
What kind of a system that demands moral compromises, even outright lies, in order to accomplish the moral good? I cannot accomplish a politics that requires me to surrender what I know to be good for that which is significantly less than good. I cannot abide a government that insists on liars in order to achieve truth. Nor can I believe in a system that demands the innocent be unwillingly sacrificed for the sake of peace and unity.
In the end, the amendment was passed because of the compromise of good people and the corruption of weak people.
And Lincoln, in the end, says that democracy requires people to stick with it. The fact is, with the rare exception, democracy is fighting against-- and just as often fighting for-- a rising tide of injustice. For every moral position, two immoral positions arise. For every "pure" man, fifty arise to take power. Yes, the pure politicians (as few of these that there are) can make some progress, but the impure at the same time provide distractions and drawbacks, and even more. If this is democracy, give me anarchy, or monarchy.