Today is a special day in American history, as it is the 212th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President who took office during the most dire domestic political crisis in our nation’s history and succeeded in preserving our Union and abolishing slavery.
He was also the protagonist of one of the most surprisingly terrific mainstream Oscar-baiting movies of the last twenty years. We’re talking about a film that manages to provide deep historical insight, impeccable formal craftsmanship, and real dramatic heft, on top of being entertaining and engaging throughout despite being almost entirely made up of scenes of politicians in dark rooms negotiating the passage of a Constitutional Amendment that we already know will succeed in passing!
Certainly, there was no sign from anything in its production hinting at how enduring it would be. This was a co-production between no fewer than five major studios, which is a serious red flag for “filmmaking-by-committee.” While Tony Kushner’s reputation as a playwright was legendary, his only feature film credit at the time was Munich which wasn’t… without its problems. The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, an otherwise beloved and successful American filmmaker who hit a bit of a rough patch in the years leading up to Lincoln and had started to develop a bit of a reputation as a gutless crowd-pleaser. It wasn’t entirely out of the question to predict handsomely-mounted but bland period pabulum with the message “Lincoln Good, Slavery Bad” to make the overwhelmingly old and white and male members of the Academy feel comfortable with nominating it for a whole bunch of Oscars before it promptly left everyone’s memories the following month. You know, like that other handsomely-produced-but-middling historical epic from a household name director that got a bunch of Oscar nominations but is only remembered these days for its knockout Daniel Day-Lewis performance and nothing else.
Lincoln had no right to be as good as it was, and yet to my absolute delight, it ended up not only deserving every single one of its twelve Academy Award nominations, not only being the most politically ballsy studio-backed movie of the 21st century to this day, but an exemplar of classical and disciplined filmmaking that has become all too rare as “the middle” is getting squeezed out of the film industry; the kind of straightforward storytelling that doesn’t sacrifice clarity and audience accessibility for true artistic vision. Very little of Lincoln’s formal presentation is radical; nearly all of it is effective.
I hate to call the film’s most commendable trait its “message,” though that’s exactly what it is. And its counter-intuitive “message” is not one that coddles the preconceptions of your grandparents: “Sometimes the ends do justify the means.” And it zeroes in on making that point by eschewing the tedium of cradle-to-the-grave biopic formulas or trying to build some grand narrative desperately trying to touch on every significant aspect of our 16th President’s legacy. The span of time this movie captures? Three months. That’s it. The movie starts as the Civil War is drawing to a close, just after he’s already won re-election, after he’s already made the Emancipation Proclamation, and after he’s already given the Gettysburg Address. All Lincoln is interested in at this point are the efforts to pass the 13th Amendment through the lame-duck Congress before the former Confederate states are admitted back into the Union and before the courts even consider the standing of the Emancipation Proclamation, so that the issue of slavery is done away with forever.
And how does President Lincoln and his party accomplish this? By using straight-up mafia tactics. The President makes it very clear in his first big monologue in the film that he wants to pass this amendment before the war is over because the war allows him to effectively disenfranchise the only coalition that would be able to mount a strong political opposition to it. He pulls all of the dirty tricks that the beltway media pundits of today would react to with pouty sanctimony. And this isn’t presented as a bad thing at all! This isn’t some sobering exposé revealing the Dark Truth About Abraham Lincoln™.
Nowhere does Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance that I would argue is the finest and best-aged of all the Best Lead Actor Academy Award-winning performances from that decade, give some stirring speech set against treacly swelling music that melts the icy cold hearts of reformed racists like they’re Tony-freakin’-Vallelonga. He cuts side-deals with members of his own party and engages in cronyism with outgoing Democrats. He leverages his radical abolitionist Republican Ways and Means Committee chairman Thaddeus Stevens to ruthlessly bully feckless centrists and unprincipled hacks to get on board or get cut off from the pork-barrel gravy train.
He even outright lies to some of his own allies about the state of the war to keep the Amendment on the docket. All worth it. Because sometimes the ends really do justify the means. Because the true genius of Abraham Lincoln was his understanding that when you have a shot to dramatically bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice, you don’t wait around for “bipartisan consensus” or wring your hands over strict parliamentary processes.
That’s why Lincoln remains so relevant, despite being almost a decade-old and taking place 156 years ago. It is still an ideal blend of supremely competent, unobtrusive nuts-and-bolts filmmaking with a sharp narrative focus for the goal of reminding everyone of how the greatest advances in human rights were actually achieved… something we all too often forget about. We did not accomplish abolition, women’s suffrage, the end of Jim Crow in the South, or same-sex marriage through civil debate and consensus-building in the “marketplace of ideas;” we achieved them through dragging a huge chunk of society, kicking and screaming, into the future, as Lincoln, and the titular figure it’s named for, so aptly demonstrates.
Hey, did you know eleven U.S. Senators were expelled from Congress in 1861 for refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration and for supporting an armed insurrection against the government? Not sure why that bit of historical trivia popped into my head just now, but there it is!