the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 (NIV)
Steven Spielberg’s new film might better have been named The Thirteenth Amendment. The film is really about the passage of the Constitutional amendment that forever abolished slavery. Rather than dealing with Abraham Lincoln’s life from his youth through his White House years, it covers just the last four months (Jan. 1 – April 19, 1865) of the President’s administration, and his life. Such a title also would have prevented future confusion with the PBS documentary and with the 1988 TV miniseries, both of them called Lincoln.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s incredibly moving depiction of the 16th President will no doubt be noticed at Oscar time. His portrayal of Lincoln is so masterful that it is bound to be the way that Americans will picture him for many years to come—speaking in a high and gentle voice, moving with a slightly stooped posture, his hands dangling down at his side and so large that he rejects the tight gloves that his man servant tells him “Mrs. Lincoln” wants him to wear. Superbly on display is Lincoln’s skill as a storyteller, honed from the days of his youth through his circuit-traveling years in Illinois as a lawyer, and so irritating to his impatient Sec. Of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) that he leaves the room during one tense moment. One story about Nathan Hale’s post Revolutionary War visit to England where, while using the privy of an English Lord, he sees a portrait of George Washington hung on the wall. When the aristocrat is disappointed that Hale makes no mention of the offense, he has to ask Hale what he thought, and the patriot’s clever putdown of a response brought forth much laughter, from the film characters and the screening audience.
Sally Field is also excellent as Mary Todd, ably showing at one moment by her shaking hands, as well as her strident voice, the inner anguish and turmoil Mary often could not control. Her acidic put down at a White House reception of Sen. Thaddeus Stevens, who led the Congressional investigation of her extravagant expenditures using the public purse, is a delightful set piece. This and her volcanic argument with her husband are bound to lead to an Oscar nomination for the two-time winner. (The TV miniseries provides a good depiction of Mrs. Lincoln’s obsession with shopping, a weakness that caused a scandal very embarrassing to her husband’s administration when Congress investigated her actions.)
There are two other actors that should be singled out of the excellent cast, beginning with David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward. Once a rival for the Presidency, the former New York Governor is now Lincoln’s loyal confidante, to whom is entrusted the seemingly impossible task of rounding up the votes for passage of the Amendment in the House of Representatives. The other actor, one who consistently steals scenes, is Tommy Lee Jones as the staunch Abolitionist Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He was often called the Dictator of Congress because he chaired the all-powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Wearing perhaps the ugliest wig ever, Stevens works with the man he once despised as too weak in his opposition to slavery. Now both of them are committed to ridding the nation of slavery forever. The scenes of his floor fights with his opponents, especially with the pro-slavery Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) are priceless, and should relieve our fears concerning the tame (by comparison) insults and charges hurled back and forth in the 2012 election campaign—here was a guy who really knew how to insult an opponent while evoking hearty laughter from onlookers!
The film begins with a mercifully brief battle scene of soldiers stabbing, hacking, shooting, and even drowning one another in the mud. Then it moves on to an almost worshipful scene as two black soldiers converse with the President, soon joined by two white soldiers. The latter are somewhat in awe that they are actually talking with the Author of the Gettysburg Address—which it soon appears, all four have committed to memory. This is the first of several such scenes in which Spielberg adopts the Mt. Rushmore view of Lincoln, reminding us that this is The Great Man. Fortunately, there are also depicted episodes of his humanity, such as when, wearing his house slippers, he lies down on the floor where his son Tad has fallen asleep. Tad wakes up, crawls onto his father’s back, and Lincoln slowly rises to take his son to bed. The camera stays focused on the ragged-looking slippers, forgotten by their owner.
Early also in the picture we learn that Mary Todd tries to persuade her husband not to attempt to get the anti-slavery amendment passed. It has passed the Republican-dominated Senate, but the lame duck Congress has too many Democrats for the Republicans to reach the required two-thirds majority—they had already blocked one attempt the year before. His wife urges Lincoln “not to expend” his political capital gained from his re-election in such a hopeless cause. Lincoln presses on anyway, giving Seward the thankless task of obtaining the 20 additional votes required. They also need to hold their own Republican Party together because the conservative wing is not at all Abolitionist and does not get along with the Radical Republicans led by Rep. Stevens and Senator Sumner.
Lincoln’s reasoning behind reaching out to certain Democrats is that they have been defeated, and thus politically have nothing to lose if they go against their party and vote for the Amendment; and most of them will need some kind of a job, so instead of money, which would have been regarded as a bribe, and hence illegal, they can offer one of the thousands of patronage positions doled out each year by the President. It is urgent that the Amendment be passed almost right away because the Emancipation Proclamation was a war time act, questioned by many in regard to its Constitutionality, and bound to expire when the War ended within a few weeks or months. If the Southern states were brought back immediately into the government, they would certainly never agree to give up what they regarded as their “property” by voting for the Amendment. In the scene in which he puts his case before his Cabinet, it is evident, that the Lincoln who once would have prevented war by leaving slavery alone in the South but prevent it in new states, now sees that he has a narrow window of opportunity to do away forever with the institution that he despises.
Seward immediately proceeds to hire three shady characters (played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader) who set forth with offers of postmasterships and such to persuade selected Democratic Representatives to change their votes. It is an arduous task, with most refusing them, and in one case it is dangerous (but amusing), the Congressman loading his pistol and attempting to shoot the agent as he hastily gathers up his papers and flees.
Complicating matters is Lincoln’s friend and ally Francis Preston Blair, Sr. (Hal Holbrook), much more conservative than the President but an important ally because of his political influence. He insists that he be allowed to journey to R
ichmond and propose a peace meeting with representatives of the Confederacy. Lincoln has resisted such attempts to negotiate an end of the war as premature, but he needs Blair’s help in getting members of the old Whig Party to support the Amendment. However, he cannot allow the public to know of this because the anti-slavery members of Congress, especially those who are Abolitionists, would consider this as a sell out. How this almost derails the President’s plans and presents him with a moral dilemma adds to the drama.
The same is true for Thaddeus Stevens who during the heat of the Congregational debate must disavow some of his cherished ideals if he is to maintain the support of the Whigs and conservative Republicans. We are left wondering whether or not each of them have sold their souls for success, or at least, their integrity. There is a moving moment when, confronted with whether to agree to what amounts to a lie, Lincoln pauses to think the matter through, and then moves ahead on his morally questionable path. His decision involves the fate of millions of African Americans, those living and those who will be born afterward. Morally sensitive viewers will be revisiting the old debate about whether the end justifies the means.
Although the credits state that Tony Kushner (Angels in America) based his script on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, what takes up 90% of the film, the struggle to build support for the 13th Amendment, is covered in just four pages in her book (pp. 686-690). And indeed, some of the details of the scenes at the climax of the ratification process might be historically questionable, perhaps exaggerated for dramatic effect. (Now. would Hollywood really do such a thing?) I had no luck finding a historian’s comments on the film, other than a piece on the accuracy of Daniel Day-Lewis’s adapting a high-pitched voice for the President. There are a screen full of acknowledgements in the end credits, so the screenwriter possibly found elsewhere some bases for the events in the House chamber and the deal making in taverns and back rooms.
Of more interest to people of faith are the moral dilemmas faced by Lincoln and Stevens and the concept of Providence, evident in both Lincoln’s masterful Second Inaugural Address and in the strange and unlikely events of his life that unexpectedly led to his becoming President.
We usually say that “the end does not justify the means,” but this moral dictum is put to the test in this story, the stakes—the freedom of an entire people in the nation—being so high. Both Lincoln and Stevens forsake their ethical principles in order to bestow this great blessing upon the nation. I love the scene in which Stevens asks the House Clerk to borrow the tally sheet of the votes of the Representatives. He takes it home, saying to his housekeeper and mistress, Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), that never has corruption brought about so great a good.
Lincoln believed very much in the providence of God, as his greatest speech, the Second Inaugural Address testifies. And we can see the providential working of God in his life, as well as the assertion of the apostle Paul that God can take the negative as well as the positive parts of life to weave them into a tapestry for good. Using Lincoln’s doubts and anguish stemming from the deaths of his loved ones—his mother and sisters when he was a boy and then two of his young sons when he was an adult—God fashioned perhaps the most compassionate man who ever occupied the White House. Like all Lincoln movies, there is a tender scene in which Lincoln reads through a stack of court martial documents in which the President tries to find some reason for over-ruling the death sentence. Through Lincoln’s struggles to escape his frontier ignorance and poverty, and his bitter disappointments when Steven Douglas defeated him twice God fashioned a man of perseverance who insisted that the Union be saved at all costs, and then, when the war was almost won, who refused to take the advice of almost everyone else that he should not try to get the Thirteenth Amendment ratified.
Unfortunately the script does not show us anything of Lincoln’s religious beliefs or practices, other than the portion of the Second Inaugural Address that is dramatized. Perhaps the writer accepts the myth of a few that Lincoln was a skeptical “fatalist,” partially based on the fact that Lincoln never joined a church. However, as those know who have read Elton Trueblood’s fascinating book Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish, or for that matter, some of Lincoln’s own writings, the President was very much a believer. (For more on this topic see the article following the discussion questions.)
Regardless of the above reservation, I cannot commend this film enough. My hope is that church groups, youth and/or adult, go and then gather to discuss its issues. Also, the film might send viewers to the library or to their computers to seek out more information on this amazing man. I know that shortly after I write this review the movie about Englishman James Bond will overshadow the American, but the latter’s adventures are so synthetic compared to the genuine life lived by the latter. I was surprised at reading some reviews in which the writer reported that some stretches of Spielberg’s film were “dull” and “boring.” This made me wonder if they preferred Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Maybe so, as there certainly is plenty of James Bond action and blood in that travesty of a film. Nevertheless, despite any flaws, Steven Spielberg has, to paraphrase Edwin Stanton’s words, given us a movie that “belongs to the ages.
Might contain some spoilers.
1. What do you think of the juxtaposition of the opening battle scene with the quiet one of Lincoln talking with the four soldiers? (Note that the comments of the bold African American corporal about disparity in pay and rank of white and “colored” soldiers are dealt with also in the film Glory.)
2. In the first scene with Mary Todd and her husband what do we learn about her view of trying to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment? What do most of the members of Lincoln’s Cabinet think of this?
3. Why does Lincoln want to push for the Amendment that very month? How is January of 1865 like a “kairos” moment as far as circumstances go for getting the Amendment ratified?
4. Do you think that the term “love-hate relationship” applies to the Lincoln marriage? How does Mary Todd show that the deaths of their two boys have unhinged her? Also, how do we see during their argument that Lincoln lives as much for others as for himself, whereas Mary Todd feels and thinks mostly for and of herself? What do you think of her husband’s challenge to her that she can decide whether to help him or to increase his burden?
5. What do you think of Lincoln’s storytelling? How do we see it relieving tension or making people think? How must humor have been absolutely essential for Lincoln to stand up to so much pressure? (Along the same line, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book extensively describes how Lincoln’s love for and frequent attendance at the theater provided enormous relief for the burdened President—and for his good friend Seward, the two often attending together.)
6. How do Mary Todd and her husband appear to be overprotecting their son Robert? How is his desire to enlist a natural one for a young man his age? Who first realizes and admits to this?
7. What do you gain in understanding Lincoln’s racial views from the scene in which on the front porch of the White House Lincoln speaks with Mary’s servant Elizabeth Keckely (Glora Reuben)? (Because the film focuses on just four months of the President’s life it cannot show how he gradually gave up his view that blacks should be sent to Africa or South America, His meetings with Frederick Douglas, also not shown, helping him to change his views.)
8. What do you think
of the methods by which Seward’s agents use to persuade the wavering Democrats to support the Amendment? Of Lincoln’s tactics in delaying the arrival of the Confederate peace delegates, and of his reply to Congress that as far as he knew, there were no peace delegates in Washington? Or of Thaddeus Stevens denying on the floor of Congress his long expressed belief that blacks should also be equal on a social as well as a political level with whites?
9. Stevens in one exchange states that he wants to completely destroy the Southern plantation class, give their property and wealth to the cause of educating blacks, and provide the latter with enough land so that they can stand on their own: what do you think of this?
10. What do you think might have happened between him and Lincoln had the latter lived and tried to implement his far different, lenient, plan of welcoming the rebels back into the political and economic life of the nation? How was John Wilkes Booth’s deed the worst thing that could have happened to the South in 1865?
11. What do you think of the filmmakers’ decision to show Tad attending a performance of “Aladdin’s Lamp,” rather than his parents at Ford Theater? How does this make the effect of the assassination all the more poignant and powerful?
12. When the radical Republicans did gain control of Congress following the assassination, what happened to Stevens’ plan? What had he not counted on? The virulent and violent resistance of the whites and the growing weariness of the North in maintaining an occupation force in the South? What else?
13. At first did you miss the depiction of Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address? How is its inclusion at the end of the film appropriate?
14. The concluding speech is about the only time that the film shows us anything of Lincoln’s faith: what seems to be his view of God? How is it similar to that found in the book of Isaiah, especially the latter half, even though he quotes from four other biblical books instead? How is his life and work a bearing out of Paul’s theology in Romans 8? Does the apostle say that God causes everything, or that God uses everything, bad and good, for his purposes?
For a related article “More on Abraham Lincoln’s Religious Faith” go to the VP journal, soon to be posted on this site.