Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
With the possibility of a Mitt Romney presidency tying my stomach in knots, I was looking forward to some big-screen escapism the night before the election in the form of the new James Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’. But in one of those “Only in LA!” moments, when the lights went down in the packed theater, I realized that I’d somehow entered the wrong theater, and instead of an action-packed spy movie to get my mind off politics, I was in an early screening of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, a movie so political, Dreamworks wouldn’t release it until after the election. And while I was sometimes envious of the muffled explosions coming from the theater I should’ve been in, ‘Lincoln’ is, in many ways, the movie America needs after such a long, often ugly election.
Based partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 best-seller “Team of Rivals”, ‘Lincoln’ follows a graying, weary Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who has just been re-elected but is worn down by the brother-on-brother brutality of the Civil War. But with the Union gaining the upper hand and the South considering a face-saving deal, Lincoln has enough energy and conviction to make a push to end slavery in the United States once and for all. But the risks are enormous, possibly prolonging the war, shattering the fragile coalition within his own party, and empowering his democratic opposition.
So most of ‘Lincoln’ is about the dirty work of actual politics, as Lincoln, his Secretary of State (played by David Strathairn), and a trio of congressional horsetraders (played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) and a vocal abolition champion (played by Tommy Lee Jones) attempt to convince, cajole, shame, trick, and outright bribe vulnerable congressmen and lame ducks to support what would eventually become the 13th Amendment.
At the same time, we see a portrait of Lincoln as a solitary, humble, disarmingly intelligent, often melancholy man with a flair for folksy storytelling in order to get his points across. But Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd (played by Sally Field), who is unstable and still grieving the death of one of her sons, often pulls Lincoln back into darkness, reminding him of the dangers of his gamble.
What makes ‘Lincoln’ a great movie for post-election America is its reminder that American politics, even when it has the most noble of goals, is an inherently messy affair involving an awful lot of backroom deals, arm-twisting, and trickery. Younger viewers will probably be surprised to learn that it was a republican president who fought to end slavery, since today’s republican party has been comfortable and even proud to be the party for white racists.
And for Americans, and especially Barack Obama, ‘Lincoln’ reminds us that what we now see as self-evident political truths took a lot of hard fighting to achieve, and in many cases, came very close to never happening at all. While we can now laugh or be shocked at those in the film who can’t imagine black people as anything more than subhuman property, we currently have one of our two political parties committed to the notions that gay people don’t deserve full human rights, that poor people have too much money and the wealthy don’t have enough, that women shouldn’t have control of their own bodies, and that the richest country in the world should allow its citizens to die in the streets of preventable illness. Is there any doubt that future generations will see them as being any less backwards?
Obama certainly faces significant challenges, but are they any bigger than those faced by Honest Abe? While ‘Lincoln’ shows that there’s rarely a perfect time to do the right thing, but if you know in your heart that your cause is just, it’s always the right time. And I hope ‘Lincoln’, and Obama, inspire us to do the right things for this country right now.
‘Lincoln’ is rated PG-13 and opens today in limited release and nationwide Nov. 16.