The Great Emancipator
By Jimmy Sawczuk
Published · 7 min. read
Lincoln, Dreamworks Pictures.

Lincoln, Dreamworks Pictures

I finally saw Lincoln tonight. It’s been in theaters for more than two full months and I’ve wanted to see it since it came out, but work, the holidays and other movies kept coming up and I kept putting it off. But finally, tonight, I saw it, and it was worth the wait. And even though the movie is two months old and most people are done talking about it, I haven’t written in a while and it seems pretty relevant in this climate of political divide and identity crisis. Fair warning: I’ll be writing about a movie you may not have seen. While the plot isn’t much of a mystery, you might prefer to be surprised by the director’s and actors’ interpretations. If that describes you, read with caution.

As I walked out of the movie theater, I was reminded how proud I am to be an American. Steven Spielberg has a talent for this: Saving Private Ryan, his 1998 World War II epic, also reminds me of that every time I watch it. That’s not the only similarity between the two movies. Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan share similar visual aesthetics, using a desaturated color palette and muted lighting. They share the same composer, the legendary John Williams, and my guess is most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan scores. Spielberg might even have been cluing us in on his future ambitions in Saving Private Ryan, when General George Marshall reads the Bixby letter in support of undertaking a risky mission with seemingly little upside.

And to repeat, both movies remind me how proud I am to be an American. It makes me proud that our greatest struggles as a nation have been for freedom, and during our nation’s darkest hour, there were men still working to make people more free. It makes me proud that arguably one of the greatest world leaders ever could not have had a more humble beginning. And it makes me proud that even though we as a nation allowed slavery for the first 89 years of our history, we eventually did the right thing. I’ll repeat that, because I think it’s important: we did the right thing. We aren’t perfect, but I’m proud to be a part of a nation that can improve.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know that I can identify a single Daniel Day-Lewis movie I’ve seen apart from Lincoln, but I can tell you in this movie, he is sublime. He portrays a man who’s compassionate, thoughtful, tortured, and driven to the point of obsession. His compassion is shown throughout the movie, especially when dealing with his wife, his youngest son Tad and talking with Union soldiers. His thoughtfulness is also interweaved throughout the film: during moments of intense debate around him, Lincoln listened a longer time than he spoke, and when he spoke, spoke slowly and deliberately but intelligently. But I believe those two characteristics were easy, and written into the script. Lincoln was tortured by the death of his young son William, who had died a few years before at the age of 12, as well as all the young men dying in a fight to unify a torn nation. He shows it in his movement, which is labored and deliberate, and he shows it in his face, which you believe has to force smiles or none will come.

But the characteristic that stuck out to me the most was Lincoln’s drive. I guess I’d have thought Lincoln’s chief priority throughout the Civil War was getting peace, and that ending slavery was just part of the paperwork that had to happen behind the scenes to make it official. But Lincoln makes it clear that the President’s main goal was to abolish slavery forever. The scene that shows this best is mere hours before the vote on the Amendment, and after listening to his cabinet argue about his priorities, Lincoln slams his hand on the table and says (please excuse the language, I would normally censor it but I feel it’s important here):

I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! I wonder if any of you or anyone else knows it. I know! I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!

It’s the speech of a man who’s been working towards one moment his entire life, or at least for a very long time. And at the ultimate moment, when it looks like all might be lost, he launches into his defense. The movie makes clear that he could have ended the war months sooner, saved thousands of lives, if he had compromised on slavery. He didn’t compromise. As I said above, as painful as a decision as it was, it was certainly the right one. Our great Presidents throughout history were the ones who didn’t necessarily follow the polls but led by their ideals, and made the decisions they thought were best and stood by them. There’s no President who did this better than Lincoln, and he’s probably the most respected President in American history.

The movie’s ending is what you think it is, but it doesn’t happen as I expected. Rather than being in Ford’s Theatre, the camera was in another theater where Tad was watching another play before the announcement of what had occurred at Ford’s Theatre offscreen. Earlier in the movie, Spielberg chose to train the camera on Lincoln, who was in the White House during the climactic roll call results, and showed Lincoln’s reactions as he learned of the amendment’s success from the sounds outside. The viewer was left to imagine what happened in the House of Representatives (at least, the final seconds of it), and he was left to imagine what happened in Ford’s Theatre. In other words, Spielberg showed us Lincoln during his greatest victory, and gave him privacy during his final defeat. I also liked these choices because we were left to focus on Lincoln’s life and accomplishments rather than his tragic death.

The supporting cast of Lincoln also deserves mention, because they were really good. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, in particular, were incredible. I particularly liked the way Thaddeus Stevens’ (Jones) motives were hidden until the very end, when it was shown that his desire for equality went beyond politics. Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Lincoln was equally as tortured but more uncontrolled as Lewis’s Lincoln. James Spader too brought some comic relief, and let’s just say Joseph Gordon-Levitt had a really good 2012 and Lincoln was no different.

The applications in today’s world are relevant, but more complex. Lincoln showed that even back then, the nation was divided (only back then, literally) and Congress was partisan. But the amendment in question was pretty simple:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

To contrast, the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010 and similarly unpopular, was hundreds of pages. So it’s not that we weren’t divided back then, but the problems were way less complex. (And it shouldn’t go without notice that Lincoln didn’t have to deal with the 24-hour news cycle or YouTube.)

But as complex as our issues today are, after seeing Lincoln, I’m confident we as Americans can find solutions for them. After all, our country has never been perfect. But we’ve been at our best when we’re defending freedom.

Oh, and to answer the question if you should see Lincoln: the answer is a resounding yes. If you like America, history, politics and/or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you won’t be disappointed.