My older brother and I occasionally engage in conversations about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Brother Doug is a Libertarian, fair to say, perhaps, a radical Libertarian. His view of the 16th president, and he is not alone in this view, is that Lincoln usurped power that wasn’t really his. He broke the Constitution in order to save it and he illegally prosecuted a war for the purpose of keeping states who had no desire to be in the union from seceding. His view is that slavery as a system would have died out about the same time that it ended with the war and that the south should have been allowed to secede.
My view is quite different, though I am a Libertarian. It was the south who fired the first shots on Fort Sumter, not the north. It’s true that Lincoln was ready for that eventuality and expected it. When it came, he unleashed the U.S. military and its purpose was simply to say to the southern states-secession by force will not stand. Over time, the war practically became a fight to end slavery and Lincoln saw it that way. Yes, he was a pragmatic politician and he did indeed say that if he could end the war while keeping slavery, he would do that. He said he would do what it took to end the war-period. It is true he “broke” the Constitution in order to save it–but most wartime presidents do that. From suspending Habeas Corpus to the creation of the Great Society to the Patriot Act, wartime presidents have violated the Constitution. Right or wrong? In my view, slavery was an abomination that needed to be decisively destroyed and the war did that. You decide…
None of that changes the complex and grand character of Abraham Lincoln and his treatment in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals reveals much more than the humble man from Illinois. It reveals a practical political character who made deals, compromised, cajoled, pushed and won a war. Steven Spielberg has masterfully, if somewhat incompletely, rendered Lincoln for the movie that bears the president’s name. It is as grand and sweeping a film as any I have seen.
The film occupies a small space of time, January to April of 1865. It’s the last 3 and a half months of the war and the last 3 and a half months of Lincoln’s life, unbeknownst to him. Spielberg brings us inside the relationships between Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward as well as Secretary of War Stanton and, of course, the relationship between Lincoln and his wife, Mary played resoundingly and gorgeously by Sally Field. Occupying a character who is, if such a thing is possible, more complex than Mr. Lincoln, Field shows us the penetrating and practical “Molly,” as Lincoln affectionately referred to her, as she wavers between being a true help-mate to the president, a kind of unhinged and negatively charged jealousy and finally to chaotic insanity at the loss of their son, Willy, and the feared loss of their oldest son, Robert when he enlists in the army late in the war.
In typical Spielberg fashion, the acting is brilliant and top notch actors establish the important roles: Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, the founder of the Republican party, Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, David Strathairn as Seward, James Spader as lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as Robert Lincoln and the list goes on.
But it is Daniel Day-Lewis who becomes Lincoln, who occupies him and who for about 2 hours and 20 minutes, commands our attention. It’s not a one-man show, however. One of Day-Lewis’s great attributes as an actor is the room he gives other actors. He doesn’t steal the show, however much he is its center of gravity. He affects not just Lincoln’s disheveled appearance, unruly hair and clumsy gait, but his tenor and nasally voice, a kind of Midwestern twang, which so many people commented on during Lincoln’s time and his way with words.
In one of the most glorious scenes of the film, Lincoln is in the war room where dispatches arrive by telegraph and messengers come and go. He is monitoring the battle of Wilmington awaiting word that the fort there has fallen into Union hands along with Secretary of War Stanton. As he gets up from his seat, he weaves an affectionate tale about Ethan Allen who, while in London, made light of a picture of George Washington in an outhouse. Before he begins, Stanton, stressed with the day’s news, says, “Oh no! You’re going to tell one of your G-d damned stories! I cannot listen to another story from you!” Lincoln merely dismisses Stanton with a waive of his hand and proceeds to hold the gathering of officers, soldiers and messengers in the other. Yet at the moment when the news comes in that the fort has fallen, Lincoln is side by side with Stanton, the two of them holding each the other’s hand tightly.
The White House, as the Lincolns used it, is one of the small miracles of the film. History records that Tad and Willy had the run of the entire place and after Willy’s death, a large portion of allowing Tad to mend was giving him free reign and access to his father. So it is that the boy comes running into the office in the middle of cabinet meetings, hugging his dad and moving across the room. He does not disrupt, Mary was careful to instruct him that while he could be in the room, he could not disrupt–but he does play and dress in his blue army uniform. In the midst of a meeting between Seward and Lincoln, a specific knock comes to the office door. “I’m honor bound to answer that distress call,” says Lincoln and he opens the door to a worried Tad who has lost a specific toy.
One cannot help but be moved, whether you take Doug’s view of President Lincoln or mine or something else, by the tragedy that his presidency portrays. Alone in the residence with Mary, the two argue a stormy and destructive fight over whether Robert should be allowed to enlist. Originally, the president says no, but he acquiesces as Robert tells him that he doesn’t need his permission. Mary, in the throes of her grief after losing Willy says, “Robert is our first born, you are supposed to favor him, but you don’t! He is a reminder of a marriage you didn’t want, a child you didn’t want and you will not see my grief! When Willy died, you ignored Tad who needed you so and now, you ignore me!” That’s not verbatim, but close.
Lincoln, standing above a kneeling Mary, calmly, though with great passion says to her, “When Willy died, I wanted to crawl down into the earth and into the coffin with him. I did….don’t you lecture me about grief.” His voice barely raises beyond its normal tenor, but his eyes tell the whole story as Spielberg brilliantly closes in on the warn crags and creases in Lincoln’s long and drawn countenance. While in the field with his officers, General Grant, played by Irish actor Jared Harris, tells Lincoln, “you look 10 years older than you did a year ago.” So he does.
Perhaps the film will open more discussion about the 16th president, the great cataclysm of the Civil War and other issues. If it does, that can only be healthy. But surely the film’s great gift to its audience is to provide insight into men and women who didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and objectivity to look at the great war, the Constitutional issues and slavery. It is naturally told, if sympathetically–Spielberg’s films are always emotionally wrought. But the sheer gift of watching Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader, is so grand and so gorgeous, that you cannot help but weep at the sadness and tragedy. And if, most of all, you are distraught by the current state of politics in the U.S., this film will cure you of that bit of hubris.