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Editorial: Lincoln Memorial

Steven Spielberg has injected some Hollywood into his new film Lincoln, and that’s to be expected, given that Spielberg is, after all, a Hollywood director. What’s remarkable, though, is the faithful effectiveness with which he has rendered one of the nation’s great political dramas.

So we’re inclined to shrug at such cinematic inventions as the scene in which two pairs of soldiers, one black and one white, recite the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln himself before heading off to battle. What we’ll remember about the film is the insight it offers into politics then and, perhaps, now.

Lincoln tells the story of the House passage of the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery in 1865. As a practical matter slavery was already dead, by the pen (Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in rebelling states to be free) and by the sword of advancing Union armies. But Lincoln feared that leaving slavery embedded in the Constitution would also leave open the possibility that a freed people might once again be shackled.

You might think that passing an amendment to end slavery would be a simple matter, but that wasn’t the case in 1865 — no less so than enacting the Civil Rights Act a century later, or cleansing the last pockets of racism from our hearts and practices today.

To hold his Republican House majority intact, Lincoln had to placate conservatives worried about prolonging the war by agreeing to meet secretly with a Southern delegation seeking peace on Southern terms. At the same time, he had to keep in check abolitionists intent on radical change regardless of cost. And he needed Democratic votes too, at a time when that party wanted the war ended even if that meant preserving slavery.

Sounds dull as civics class, right? In Spielberg’s hands, it’s compelling cinema, in part because he captures the theatricality of politics in that day — an era in which one lawmaker (the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones) might say to another, on the floor of the House, “You fatuous nincompoop, you unnatural noise!”

Through actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg also evokes the rare combination of personal qualities Abraham Lincoln possessed: the ability to move millions with lofty words whose echoes still resonate, coupled with the capacity to bring a closeted cluster of divided men together through a wink, a nudge and a well-chosen joke about outhouses.

To its credit, the film doesn’t shy from the ugliness in American life and politics. The n-word is used with a casualness that reveals much about prevailing views in that time, and Spielberg’s Lincoln is quite willing to buy congressional votes — or have others buy them on his behalf — in pursuit of his noble goal. At a critical moment, when the exposure of his maneuvers jeopardizes the amendment, Lincoln comes as close to lying his way out of the problem as a skillful lawyer can.

As near as we can tell, these are the realities of the amendment’s passage — or, at least, plausible characterizations of it. They make for a memorable movie. And it did leave us wondering why, in our time, one that is far less convulsive but seemingly no less contentious, our political leaders find it almost impossibly difficult to get the people’s important work done.