The famous English/American journalist Alistair Cooke (1908–2004), best known for his moving works like Letter from America and Alistair Cooke’s America, was one of the most devoted students of American history, and personal life in the states, in the twentieth century. Most of you will remember him as the host of Masterpiece Theater, from 1971 to 1992. “Letter from America” was actually the longest running radio broadcast of its kind, lasting for 58 years. Cooke loved all things America! It was Cooke who once said of President Abraham Lincoln, “It is difficult, and in some quarters thought to be almost tasteless, to talk sense about Lincoln but we must try.” Yes, we must try. And the new film “Lincoln” should require us to try once again.
A recent reviewer of the new “Lincoln” movie wrote in the National Review that “few topics of discussion bring men and women of the Right to sword’s point faster than the significance of Abraham Lincoln in American history. He has been decried by some as the first significant champion of creeping statism, the author of confusion on matters related to America’s founding, a law unto himself, a ruthless suppressor of dissent, an inciter of insurrection, and much else.” One conservative website routinely refers to Abraham Lincoln as “the monster Lincoln.” I grew up hearing a great deal of this anti-Lincoln rhetoric. I still hear it from some Christians who try to defend the old South and slavery.
Yet to others Abraham Lincoln is our nation’s greatest man, clearly the most important of all our presidents. He is, well, the “Great Emancipator.” He is an inspiration, even being called a “secular Christ figure.” (There is truth in this last statement if you read my previous blog on Lincoln.) In the movie “Lincoln” the brief and tastefully portrayed scene of his death is only briefly shown. After the physician pronounces the precise hour and minute of his passing on a Saturday morning, over Easter weekend, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered these unforgettable words, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton surely could not have imagined how true his words would be. Lincoln does belong to the ages and Spielberg has directed as fine a portrayal of the man, and this through telling us only about one small portion of his busy life, as we’ve ever seen on the big screen. (Ironically, very little about Lincoln has been done on screen and most of it is old and poorly done.)
The great strengths of this new movie are numerous, perhaps too numerous to list them all. For starters, the script writers and producer/directors were right in limiting the film to one small part of Lincoln’s life. One can not imagine how they could have done otherwise in such a dramatic portrayal. Lincoln is too big and too complex for one simple film. Spielberg says, “I did not want to make a movie about a monument. I wanted the audience to get into the working process of the president.” His film succeeds admirably on this point. Though the viewer will only understand that Lincoln’s view of slavery developed over time if they have previously studied his life no one should miss the simple fact that by 1865 he was determined to do whatever was necessary to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. He was determined to abolish slavery throughout the United States once and for all.
It is often said that the Civil War was fought over slavery. This is simply untrue. It was fought over two different visions of what the word “united” meant in the federal republic which was the United States of America. Lincoln believed the states could not decide to leave the Union and some slave-holding states felt otherwise thus they voted to secede. Lincoln’s actions were meant to stop this from becoming a permanent break-up of the United States of America.
“Lincoln” opens with a graphic and moving picture of the terrible toil of four-plus years of civil war. The most reliable recent estimates are that 750,000 people died in this war, which was roughly 2.5% of the U. S. population at the time. The equivalent today would be 7.5 million slaughtered. Imagine that for a few moments and take it into your mind and heart. The movie rightly shows that winning the war was not, in and of itself, going to end slavery. The whole point of this movie is thus to show how Lincoln went about making sure that people’s hearts and minds could not go back to slavery once the war was finally over.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose masterful book A Team of Rivals provided the historical impetus for the film, says than when she saw the film, “I felt like I was watching Lincoln!” She further says, “I awakened with Lincoln every morning and thought about him every night” while I was writing my book on him. She adds, “He’s the most interesting person I know.” Perhaps that says it as well as it could be said. Abraham Lincoln is nothing if he is not the most interesting American who ever lived. Goodwin adds, “Lincoln’s ethical and human side still outranks all other presidents. I had always thought of him as a statesman–but I came to realize he was [also] our greatest politician.” What a rare thing – a great statesman who is also a great politician. I’ve been pondering this for weeks now. I despair as to whether or not we have anyone like this who will lead us today.
Goodwin and Spielberg first met in 1999, before Team of Rivals had been completed. Spielberg asked her what she was writing and when she said she was working on Lincoln he had this deep passion to ask her about movie rights. Thus began a film project that finally resulted in this new blockbuster film, a film which will garner many Academy Awards if my hunch is right. The critics rightly rave about this film. In this case they get it right on every point.