Imagine What a Second Term President can do With a Lame Duck Congress: A Movie Review

(I tried to reduce spoilers, but if you’re sensitive about such things, read at your own risk.)

I went to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln over the Thanksgiving Day weekend.  It’s the more realistic version of Lincoln’s Civil War struggles than say Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the box office bomb that came from the most sought after script in Hollywood per script consultant, Danny Manus. I guess Americans, even present day Democrats, are still reluctant to believe that southerners are vampires. Although, many might believe that Illinois congressmen or lawyers are, but that’s a whole other story.

In any event, there is still a lot of interest in the real story of Abraham Lincoln. The Spielberg version made it to the top of the charts last weekend, bested only by some other vampires and James Bond. The Northbrook Court theatre was packed when I went to see it. I think people are still interested because his story is applicable to our current problems with a fractured country. While Abe would detest that there’s still talk of secession, he’d probably enjoy his story being reviewed for solutions to our current problems with war, taxes and need.

Lincoln came from a screenplay by Angels in America writer Tony Kushner, and was influenced by the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In the movie, the war is all but won, and we see Abraham Lincoln, not as the hunter of vampires, but as the storyteller.

Wrapped in a plaid wool blanket over his suit during the winter of 1865, Lincoln, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is trying to tell just the right stories to convince enough Northern Democrats to join Republicans in voting for the Thirteenth Amendment before the southern states re-enter the union and make its passage impossible. At the same time, the president has to prevent the Radical Republicans, led by Tommy Lee Jones’ version of Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, from jumping ship because the Amendment does not include full rights and the vote. Tensions mount as Francis Preston Blair, depicted by a former Lincoln himself, Hal Holbrook, suggests he has enough his influence with the leaders in Richmond to end the war and urges the president to authorize him to begin negotiations.

How could they not end the war when so many have died? How could they end slavery when trying to negotiate a peace? How could they not, and leave it to yet another generation? The “so many have died” argument cut every way.

Some of his advisers tell Lincoln that ending the war is more important than ending slavery, but he responds,

Abolishing slavery settles the fate for all coming time, not only of the millions in bondage but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding? We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure. Here stepped out upon the world’s stage now with the fate of human dignity upon our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment.

It’s powerful stuff and sort of belittles the argument that we should compromise to expediency in our own present-day struggles. Can anyone say “Public Option” or “Medicare for All”?

I liked the story of  Lincoln’s father moving the family out of Kentucky because a non-slave-owning farmer cannot compete with a slave-owning plantation owner. It’s a teachable moment on our own economy based on low low prices and low low wages. But, the most moving scenes for me were the one with Lincoln alone in the communications room with two young soldiers, and the one where Mary has words for Thad Stevens, showing she still has it despite all her problems.

There is some comic relief in the movie as Democratic operative WN Bilbo, along with a cohort, works to get Democratic support for the Amendment, member by member. They’ve been given some leeway toward corruption by the William Seward character so long as the president can remain out of it. Bilbo is a real historical character who actually refused a subsequently offered post for his efforts, although James Spader plays him like a Shakespearean fool, or his characters from Boston Legal and The Office. After Star Wars, every Hollywood movie seems to need its R2D2 and C3PO.

If you want to talk about performances, you have to credit Sally Field for hers as Mary Todd Lincoln, a tragic figure usually ignored or mocked. Todd Lincoln is still drowning in agony over Willy’s death and lack of attention from her husband, but is not so impractical as to want her husband to miss the opportunity for greatness. She stresses his mandate, and love from the nation, or half the nation, but that’s enough, isn’t it?

Robert is portrayed as sick of all of them and looking toward his own future. The real Robert Lincoln’s  subsequent treatment of his mother points to that being a fair depiction. I think his character represents the nation’s youth, or what’s left of it, wanting to get past everything so they can live. Perhaps we owe some moving on to our own era’s youth.

I could not help but think that Joseph Gordon-Levitt looked a lot like pictures I’ve seen of Robert Lincoln. In fact, the movie appeared very realistic in all its visual aspects, from Daniel Day-Lewis’ hair and Lincoln-esque stoop to Mary’s dresses and hairstyle to the hospital and just about every detail in every exterior and room shown. The city was supposed to be DC, but I was taken back to Springfield, IL. Everything looked like the Lincoln Herndon Law Office still standing at 1 South Old State Capitol Plaza and the Old State Capitol building. Kearns-Goodwin tells of taking Day-Lewis to Springfield to help him get into his role. She said he felt claustrophobic in the Lincoln house. He should have seen (or smelled) it before the feds took it over and cleaned it up.

Yes, the movie has enough Hollywood tension, and that’s hard to do in a movie devoid of vampires with a story to which everyone already knows the end. We know the task is accomplished, but how was it done? Would Stevens melt down on the House floor? Would the vote be delayed? Would the South demand the chance to kill the Amendment before surrendering? Would Blair ask his followers to abandon the amendment? Even if you are a historian and already know the answers to these questions, you want to watch it play out for its storytelling appeal. I’d like to imagine that Lincoln himself was enjoying the movie in the theatre along with us, but perhaps we should keep him out of theatres altogether.

All that being said the third to last scene was entirely gratuitous and unnecessary in my humble opinion.

Lincoln is the story of how the half-popular President Abraham Lincoln managed to get a necessary, but not necessarily politically expedient or popular, vote out of a lame duck U.S. House of Representatives. The end of slavery was long overdue. Our forefathers kicked the can down the dirt road in 1776, 1781 and 1787. There was always some issue considered too big and too important to risk.  There was always some political deal that had to be made that was considered more important. Lincoln had his own problems to worry about, but he finally said enough… now… stop the bleeding.

Today, we have to get past that fiscal cliff. Rumblings out of the White House, and even Dick Durbin’s office,  seem to indicate that the social safety net, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, are on the table. Durbin seems to be trying to prepare us to give up most of our values. He doesn’t seem to get that we expect to win something after we won so big this past election. He also doesn’t seem to get that the policy win is critical for the entire country.

We liberals have always known that it’s a demand side economy and that the social safety net contributes to it. Supply side measures have been implemented time and time again, and always fail, yet they are still forced down our throats while our Democratic leaders repeatedly tell us it’s not time to make our move yet. Four years ago, we had to create mandates and insurance exchanges to benefit the health care and health insurance industries before we could help people. Talk of public options or single payer was blasphemy equated to Tea Party ramblings about false freedoms in guns and oil. Two years before that, we had to convince people that global warming in fact existed, even as waters rose and storms became more violent. Two years before that we had to worry about Iraq’s false connection to al Qaeda, proving that rich people needed more tax cuts and corporations more welfare, and everyone else needed to go shopping, on credit. The fallout from coasting on false controversy in all these issues grows every day.

Now, we’re told we have to tolerate tax breaks for the wealthy and a shrinking the middle class mired in foreign-produced products, and unregulated financial markets because if we ask for too much we’ll lose… well, it’s pretty unclear now what exactly we will lose that we haven’t lost already. But, I’ll go out on a limb and ask here, as Lincoln asked over 147 years ago, shall we stop this bleeding?

In the tradition of my old blog, I’ll rate the movie as I always have, in cat treats on a 5 cat treat scale. Lincoln gets 4 1/2 cat treats for good tension, wonderfully portrayed characters, and meticulous attention to detail, not to mention the roadmap old Abe gives to Barack Obama–a direct beneficiary of Abe’s hard work.


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