Nearly one year after I chanced a brief Sunday morning repose in Robert E. Lee’s family pew at Christ Church in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia, I found myself seated in a different sort of theater to view and reflect on the issues that led to our national schism and the bloodiest conflict in American history. Yesterday at a local movie house I took in a matinée showing of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
Drawn from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 best seller “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” Spielberg’s cinematic chronicle of the last few months of Lincoln’s administration and life provides a fascinating window into the tumultuous times that led to the conclusion of the War Between the States.
Shaped by the times into which he was born, Lincoln strove to complete the second act of the great American drama that had been initiated by the founding fathers and would be carried forward in the Civil Rights Movement a century later.
Here we see Lincoln the man (deftly portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis) wrestling with the members of his cabinet, arguing that the time is expedient to push forward his agenda for the equality of all men. A constitutional amendment would ensure its propagation for all time — or at least for as long as the nation for the last best hope on earth might endure.
Through Spielberg’s direction and Tony Kushner’s lines brought to life by the superb renditions of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Fields and Tommy Lee Jones, we witness the gruesome horrors of war as well as the messiness of the political process inside the beltway. (I use that term “beltway,” because it appears as though little has changed within the confines of that circumscribed area over the past 150 years. Despite the preponderance of political spin, the wheels of democracy turn ever so slowly, both then as now.)
Lincoln the man was given to fits of melancholy. He shared his disturbing dreams of isolation and loneliness with his wife, whose own constitution frequently bordered on hysteria. Rightly or wrongly, he expected that she would bear the same grief without complaint as he himself struggled to do. One scene where Lincoln and Mary engage in a vehement verbal exchange in the bedroom brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” The same scene repeats in slightly different form on the floor of the House between verbally abusive representatives Thaddeus Stevens and the gentlemen from New York.
Here also we glimpse the gentleness of Lincoln the father in his dealings with Tad, his youngest son; as well as the stern uncompromising stance with Robert, his oldest, in his refusal to allow the young man to enlist. Cloaked in the power of the presidency, Lincoln will refuse to compromise on what will become the 13th Amendment; while in his Second Inaugural Address he will also advocate for a gentle reconstruction of the southern states, “with malice toward none and charity for all.”
As the final credits roll and the viewer rises from his seat, he reflects that what he has just witnessed over the previous two and a half hours is in many ways a re-enactment of the political process of the past four years. Politics is a messy profession; yet a necessary one, if as a democratic nation we are willing to struggle toward those loftier goals dreamt of in uncommon hours.
To paraphrase Lincoln’s words, if we advance such freedoms, what greater good might lie ahead for us to discover?