Lincoln vs. Congress

imgresLeave it to Steven Spielberg to make history entertaining for the masses. His movie Lincoln, an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is a cinematic wonder. In it, he takes just one month of Lincoln’s war-racked presidency, January of 1865, and dissects it like a frog in a biology class.

Although Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation two years previously, he was legitimately concerned that it wouldn’t be enforceable at the conclusion of the Civil War and that, while freeing slaves, it didn’t actually abolish slavery. He felt that only an amendment to the Constitution could effectively and permanently rid the nation of this heinous blot on our history. The 13th Amendment had passed in the Senate in 1864, and now it faced its toughest battle in the House of Representatives.

Lincoln is told early on that there are not enough votes to pass it in the House, no matter how they count it up. Undeterred, he gives his advisors a mandate to do what needs to be done to get it through the House. He could not envision a future where slavery had any chance of rearing its head again, where hundreds of thousands of Civil War deaths would be in vain.

Politics being politics, one character jokes that the amendment is being passed through bribery and corruption. But clearly, as the Founding Fathers intended, it is not supposed to be a quick and easy thing to change the Constitution. Any amendments should be analyzed and debated at length before becoming the law of the land in perpetuity. The logical question is raised, if an entire subpopulation is suddenly freed, how will they be assimilated into society? Will they be able to prosper or will being thrust haphazardly into the unknown bring them to ruin? Lincoln shows his adept leadership by admitting he doesn’t know what will happen. It will be new ground for everyone, but they must not be afraid to take steps forward, trusting that they would find their way as they go. Time was of the essence, and progress could not be stopped long enough to plan the next several decades. The film teaches a good lesson in doing what needs to be done right now, seizing a chance that may never come again.

Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln is of a generally calm, unruffled but determined man. In meetings he often seems distracted, like he’s not taking things seriously, but then, launching into a retelling of one of his famous stories, it is obvious that he not only heard every word and considered it, but that he is adamant about the direction they need to go. The audience gets the feeling that this backwoods man has somehow so far exceeded his colleagues in intelligence that he must descend to their level to work with them, yet he does so with firmness, patience, and good humor.

We are also treated to a glimpse of Lincoln’s personal life—the husband of the emotionally unbalanced Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), the father dealing with, at once, a mischievous 12-year-old boy and his oldest son Robert, who wants to join the military to his mother’s dismay. It is easy for the audience, after deeply acquainting themselves with Lincoln in a freshly unique way, to discover sadness anew when the film reaches its inevitable conclusion.


  1. Good review.

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