There comes a moment in LINCOLN where a major character is reflecting upon a decision. As he searches his soul for an answer, he is distracted by something passing by. As the distraction goes past, the character notices that it is leaving a trail of blood. Upon following the trail, the character comes upon a sight that cements his decision.
In a nutshell, that should guide many of our nations’ biggest decisions: Examine how and why your citizens have spilled blood before, and it will likely take you to the answer you need…perhaps even the answer that is best for the many, and not just the few.
LINCOLN begins in 1865. The United States of America is almost four years into its Civil War and its leaders are feverishly trying to keep the nation from tearing itself apart. The President, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) listens daily to updates about the promising results from the front lines, the staggering toll the conflict has cost the nation, and what his radical Emancipation Proclamation has meant to the country at war. Despite the urging of his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln is convinced that the greatest good will come not only if The Civil War is ended, but if a constitutional amendment is passed outlawing slavery in America.
Besides the fact that trying to win the war and pass the amendment seem to run counter to one another, Lincoln is handcuffed by the political landscape of the day. While his Republican Party (left-leaning at the time) hold the balance of power, he’ll need to procure votes from the Democratic Party (right-leaning at the time) to get the legislation passed. While he is the composer of this movement in the symphony of freedom, he spends the film trusting the conductor’s baton to others.
While Lincoln tries to keep his own family on an even keel, he entrusts the efforts on the thirteenth amendment to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). He entrusts him to use his considerable powers of persuasion to keep the party in line, and perhaps pick up a vote or two. Where Stevens’ efforts end, in steps the trio of Bilboe, Latham, and Schell (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson). They are instructed – unofficially – to get as many votes from the opposition as possible, by any almost any means necessary.
The question facing Abraham Lincoln, and his divided nation, is whether either of these goals can be reached…let alone both, a Lincoln would hope.
LINCOLN is an engaging film, and ranks up amongst the best of the year. Its decision to depict just a few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life gives it a wonderful focus. Instead of skimming through the man’s past, his rise to power, and his fight against vampires (sorry, I couldn’t resist), it drops us into one of the most important times of his life at all. It trusts us to know who he man is, and what he stands for in this fight. Just in case we’re unsure at all, Daniel Day-Lewis does a masterful job of reassuring us.
What makes this film so wonderful is the way it lets us listen in on the conversations that shaped a nation. Much the same way that they happen today, these conversations were sometimes spoken at great volume in the chambers of government…and also much like today, these conversations were sometimes whispered in private offices. In a rare moment of insight, we are privy to them all and able to see how they map the direction a broken nation must walk. Perhaps what’s most inspiring is the fact that not every conversation is between political allies. Sometimes the discussion are between enemies, sometimes between friends. Members of government speak with the average taxpayer, generals speak with enlisted men. Parents speak with children. Wives speak with husbands.
All of these conversations lead to another stitch in the tapestry…another page in the book being written. In its greatest moments, America has thrived thanks to scenes like these. The true moments weren’t scored by John Williams, or photographed by Janusz Kaminski, but they happened…as did many more like them. As we eavesdrop on each one, LINCOLN wants us to remember a few things.
The first is the fact that even though history lends itself to romantic notions, very little has ever been accomplished without everyone involved getting their hands dirty. We like to believe in our heroes, and idolize them in marble for generations to be inspired. The truth is that they haven’t always played by the rules. We can never be sure what cost was paid to achieve something for the greater good, and that’s probably a good thing. If you knew a leader needed to do something unsavoury in the name of a greater good, you’d likely be conflicted. In keeping the ugly truth from you, they spare you the inner struggle, and allow to reap the benefits in blissful ignorance.
The second thing to remember is something that still hinders America – and the entire world: The inability to listen. For as long as history has been recorded, humanity has had quarrel after quarrel. We have quarrelled over land, over money, over religion (have we ever quarrelled over religion!). What Abraham Lincoln was able to do in passing the 13th Amendment was only possible when he was able to get his political opponents to listen. It wasn’t necessary to change one’s allegiances, it wasn’t necessary to admit defeat. All that was necessary was to momentarily put down one’s flag and to listen to the other person’s idea.
Those ideas are what LINCOLN wants us to take away. It wants everyone the world over, not just Americans, to look to our past and remember a time when what we now know to be true were all radical ideas. It wants us to realize that the only way these radical ideas entered the collective conscience and became self-evident was when our ancestors began to bend the rules and listened.
The knock on LINCOLN will be that it is rose-tinted and cliché. To that I would disagree. A story about opposing sides co-operating for a greater good is a splash of cold water, and when reflecting upon the current political landscape the world over, a story about leaders who listened to one another is a radical notion – one we should probably pay attention to.