Monday, November 12, 2012

Bigger stories

There are some tales that are larger than the times or the countries in which they happen. Some that have a context that exceeds the capacities of their time and place to contain them, and they become women into the thread of mankind forever onward. Such a tale is the US Civil War in general, and in particular, the passage and wake of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is, in some regard, simply too great a figure to think of simply as the 16th President of the United States. What he faced, and what he accomplished, in large part because of who he was, I can unabashedly and safely say is the closest I come to seeing the hand of a living God at work in the world, and most enduring instance of that feeling over time.

I didn't know that much about the movie Lincoln going into it this weekend. I'd seen the trailers and knew I had a powerful thirst to see this epic. I'd somehow missed that the focus was on the 13th Amendment... or I'd simply, lazily conflated it with the Emancipation Proclamation. But those were two very different events, and towards the end of the movie, that's stated plainly; the distinction put into Mr. Lincoln's mouth to express.

What can I tell you about his movie? If you know any history at all, you know the plot in the broad strokes. I can tell you that there are three reasons to see this movie.

 The first reason is the compelling tale of how, during an extemely crucial and rapidly closing window of opportunity in January, 1865, Abraham Lincoln marshalled the forces to present the 13th Amendment to the House of Representatives and, against long odds, get it passed. Anyone who thinks of the current state of the US Congress as hopelessly divided owes it to himself or herself to spend two hours watching this movie. A house divided over minutiae like income tax rates and medical care payment plans needs to see the rump of one fatally split by a civil war further split at the end of that war over the question of what it is even to be fully human, and the political horse-trading and appeals to emotion that Lincoln used to overcome it.

Then I can tell you is that this director and these actors have given me the singular sensation of really having seen Abe Lincoln. The sensation at times that they had somehow smuggled movie cameras back to 1865 and huddled them into the debris and neglected corners of this place or that that the man moved through was at times palpable. It pervades the picture, but there are three key scenes that pin down who Abe Lincoln the man was that leave me, at least, with the sensation of really having been in the presence of the man somehow. One is a confrontation between Lincoln and his wife, Mary, that manages to be lovingly tender and bitterly hurtful all at the same time. If Oscars aren't forthcoming for this scene alone, well, they should be. Another is Lincoln alone with two young officers in his war communications room... arguably one of the first in history receiving reports and issuing orders in real time... in which his moral firmness trumps, at the last moment, a weariness that lent itself to what might have been a fatal compromise. You feel like one of the boys in the room. You don't know exactly how what Lincoln just decided will play out... but somehow, you know it's right. And finally there is the moment, some of it shared in the movie's trailer, where Lincoln loses patience with his bickering cabinet—all of whom have remarkably good points to make, if only in the context of the day—and brings them into line not with threats or ultimatums but by explaining, finally, why the job has to be done, and done now.

Which brings me to the third, and possibly the most important reason to see the movie. To learn. Anyone who assumes, as I did going into the theatre, that the Emancipation Proclamation did all the work and the 13th Amendment tied up loose ends of a parcel that was effectively tightly bound is in for a surprise. Lincoln's explanation to his cabinet is an eye-opener, even to someone like me who's had a long, if admittedly casual, interest in the US Civil War and some of the tidbits about the US Constitution. This is the central moment of the movie in the moral sense; its core. It makes it clear what had to be accomplished and why, and disposes of any questions one might have as to the strange urgency of Lincoln's drive to see the 13th Amendment passed at that moment in time. So in this, the movie manages to raise an ironic tension in the audience despite its knowing the outcome: it puts you there with those of the day who don't know, whose country will be a very different place if it doesn't pass, or passes a few months later in history. There's no artifice about this. You're given to understand what a pivotal moment in history it really was, and why it couldn't have happened any other way, any other time.

I'm kind of sentimental and anyone who knows me won't be surprised to hear that a scene moved me to tears. I wasn't the only one; I heard a few soft sobs and nose-blowings in the theatre. Remarkable, isn't it; in this cynical age, so far removed from the events of the film? I was hoping we'd be spared the assassination, and there would just be a hint, a nod to what we all know is coming like the long shadows of JFK, RFK, and Ken O'Donnell on the wall at the end of Thirteen Days, but the movie carries forward in its last minutes to bring us that moment that effectively sealed Lincoln's fate as the realized Moses and sanctified him in his semi-divine status. Seeing Lincoln die and be consigned to belonging now "to the ages" was moving, but not so much as see him depart for Ford's Theater, rushed away from his friends, and turning to remark that it was time to go, but he wished he could stay. Watching him walk down the hall in sihlouette and realize that he is passing from being "theirs" to being "ours" was much deeper in its poignancy. Still, the movie manages to give Lincoln the last word, and again, it's a word that moved me.

Just in passing, I'd like to comment on the subtle way the movie makes the point about the change in the nature of the US Presidency, or even the way we deal with public officials anywhere. It's remarkable, even startling, to see the casualness of being President in the 1860s... and in the midst of a civil war, at that. Lincoln, out wandering around and dropping in on people, or moving around the streets of Washington in an open carriage. Men with urgent news charging into the White House, up the stairs, and freely barging into the room where the president is working as though he were the clerk behind the counter at a drug store—the scene actually provoked chuckles in the audience. The world may have gotten much smaller in the age of modern communications, but in some ways, it's gotten a lot bigger. That town hall sense of politics is simply gone, gone, gone.

It's not my country. It's not my constitution, not my war, not my history. Abraham Lincoln was not my president. But none of that matters. Lincoln and the struggle for human rights is simply too big for all those little boxes. No matter where you are, Lincoln is a movie you've got to see. If you're human, you deserve to.

1 comment:

Bridgewater said...

Not having seen the film yet, I nonetheless read your commentary with great interest. It's not as if we needed a spoiler alert--as you say, we all know what's coming--and in any event, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, on which the film was made, after Obama had been elected and was appointing his cabinet from among his own rivals. I had read Gore Vidal's Lincoln and seen the series with Sam Waterston in the eighties. I grew up in a house that had been part of the Underground Railroad; my great-grandparents, both paternal and maternal, socialized with William H. Seward; I toured Seward's museum home several times with schoolmates and often walked by the house on the way to Grampa's (and by Seward's grave on many Decoration Days over the years); and years later, while in grad school, I lived not far from Springfield and visited the Lincoln sites, all of which made Lincoln's story immediate and personal to me. Even if I didn't know diddly about Lincoln, though, I would see this film for Daniel Day-Lewis alone. I had wanted to see Last of the Mohicans because I had grown up on Fenimore Cooper, but I came away feeling doubly enriched, both in the satisfaction of the story (even though they changed Natty Bumppo's name) and in the knowledge that I had seen one of the great actors. Day-Lewis is an eccentric character in his own right, to be sure, but the character immersion for which he is famous apparently had the desired effect, to judge from your singular sensation of having seen Lincoln. David Strathairn, who plays Seward, is also a fine actor; he *was* Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. I wonder how he, at around six feet, has managed with Seward, who was physically imposing, but small in stature.