The greater good
Politics used to be regarded by filmmakers as a buzz kill for big budget films. It was a secondary consideration. There had to be a primary hook in the form of a love story, some action or a tight thriller, perhaps. Rarely was the political process the main point of interest. I’d like to think that The West Wing went a long way towards changing that perception.
Lincoln is not a sweeping period piece like director Steven Spielberg’s previous effort- the overly sentimental Warhorse. Instead, it focuses on the first four months of 1865. Abraham Lincoln has just been re-elected as president of a not so United States of America. The country is into its fourth year of a very bloody civil war between the largely anti-slavery north and the vehemently pro-slavery south. The Union north is on track to defeating the Confederate south but there are many in Congress keen to end it as soon as possible. What Lincoln fears is that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation (which frees all slaves in the United States) won’t be upheld in the courts once the war is over and the rebellious states have returned. He focuses instead on trying to get the two-thirds majority it will take to pass the 13th Amendment to the constitution which would abolish slavery once and for all.
Aside from a couple of minutes of battlefield fighting right at the start, Lincoln reserves all its action for the gloomy rooms of the White House or Capitol Hill. At every turn, Lincoln is forced to fight for his Amendment in the face of advisors urging expediency and political appeasement.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln does reveal a canny, intelligent and idealistic president who is adept at using charm and guile to achieve his political desires. Democracy may be the will of the people, but it takes a determined individual to convince them of the need for change.
Daniel Day-Lewis has already won awards for his Lincoln, and will no doubt scoop up many more, thanks to his nuanced but thorough performance (not to mention a striking resemblance to the man himself). Some have criticised his voice, comparing it to Mr Burns from The Simpsons, but all the history books note that the man so famous for his Gettysburg Address did indeed have a peculiarly high-pitched voice. As an orator, and much like Obama, he knew when to deliver penetrating speeches and when to tell charming stories – both of which engaged his audience.
While Lincoln has the more poignant scenes, the best lines are left to Tommy Lee Jones’s radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. An ardent opponent of slavery, his sarcastic put downs of his Democratic opponents show the caustic disdain in which he held all those who refused to see whites and blacks as equals. Witty and quotable, you wonder why there aren’t more modern Stevens around.
For anyone familiar with the past decade’s political machinations in America’s House of Representatives, the first surprise in Lincoln is that Republicans are the progressive party. The rise of the ultra-conservative Tea Party has meant that modern Republicans have swung so far to the right, they are in danger of being lost in the political wilderness. In Lincoln, they are the party with the most radicals. Thaddeus Stevens is one of many who not only support the abolishment of slavery, but wish it could go further and give blacks the right to vote too. He would have been kicked out of the modern Republican Party a long time ago.
Lincoln, like The West Wing, has a principled president who surrounds himself with politically astute operators. The process of securing the necessary votes to pass the Amendment is far from perfect, which is hard for idealists like Stevens to approve. Instead, to achieve the greater good, those pioneering for a fairer future need to be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).
Lincoln even feels like a long, historical version of a West Wing episode – memorable characters, cracking arguments and the same sense of believing in the power of politics again. His politics is one of the ‘greater good’ rather than the ‘privileged elite’. Standing up for his principles, in the face of his family’s concerns, his colleagues’ objections and his enemies’ attacks, is exactly why Abraham Lincoln will always be remembered.