Abraham Lincoln is as big as it gets. He is a towering figure in our country’s history. Perhaps more than anyone else, he shaped our modern democracy. His words are known by most of us and repeated by many. Now, in 2012, both political parties lay competing claims to his legacy. Book after book endeavors to make sense of him and to help us understand not just what he did but who he was and how he did it. And, now, he is appearing at a local multiplex. I confess that I went to the movies last weekend with some trepidation and left feeling patriotic, sad and hopeful all at the same time.
Take yourself and your family to see Lincoln. Now. Steven Spielberg’s movie, with an amazing screenplay by Tony Kushner, is the best movie about politics I have ever seen. It is also one of the best movies about our country I have ever seen. And, finally, it features the best single performance by an actor I have ever seen. Daniel Day Lewis makes Abraham Lincoln real and approachable. Watching him you feel as if you are living (albeit briefly) in Lincoln’s world and that you are, like the others in Washington, watching, listening and trying to make sense of a leader who seems most of all to want to engage you in a conversation.
I am by no means a movie critic. And my hyperbolic praise should be suspect because I have not seen nearly enough movies to so confidently assign Lincoln a place in the pantheon. I do, however, spend a lot of time thinking about talking and persuasion and I can say with great confidence that Lewis’s Lincoln (like the man himself) has a great deal to teach about how to persuade and how to make change. He uses, in careful measure, story-telling, humor, pressure, reason, power, and passion. And he deploys these persuasive weapons deftly. Like the men he works to persuade, you fall under his spell. It’s a combination of warmth, honesty, and a rock hard underlying commitment to principle. Part of Lewis’s great art in this movie is the degree to which you can see Lincoln’s struggle and sorrow in his eyes. Lincoln is leading the country through its greatest test and it is, quite literally, tearing the great man apart. For a man who created opportunity for so many, he suffered greatly.
The sources of his suffering are apparent from the earliest moments of this film. In our now unified country it is easy to lose track of the cost, in lives and otherwise, of the Civil War. There are gruesome images of war, and reminders everywhere of how profoundly painful the conflict was for all concerned. It should — for many — end the debate about whether the Confederate flag means anything other than support for secession and deep, unending racial hatred. And it should also remind all of us in this time of deep division about the possibility of unity created by crisis. The movie offers an essential reminder of a particularly critical moment in our history. For some, it may be an introduction. No matter; it works either way.
A number of details caught my eye. Lincoln touching young men on the shoulder to say thank you. The ever-present Washington winter at a time before electricity and heat (Lincoln constantly wears a blanket). The citizens waiting at the White House for a chance to visit with the President. And the commitment and passion of many of the politicians who were not Lincoln. Men on both sides of history doing battle for their beliefs. From our moment in history, we watch the film knowing that unity emerged on the other side of the bitter divide Spielberg chronicles. As we approach the fiscal cliff, and hear the nasty rhetoric from politicians on both sides, this film offers hope.