The history books tell of Honest Abe’s achievements, of ending the bloodiest American war and healing the nation. Some books may tell of his personality, that he was earnest, patient, guarded, generous, and firm, all of which may be interpreted as differently as the eye that reads about them. But with the movie Lincoln, we now have a tangible, indelible portrayal of the character of our 16th president.
Right after he begins his second term, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is pressured to end the Civil War quickly and eradicate slavery—a more complicated situation than it appears. The two goals, in fact, appear to be mutually exclusive. Lincoln concludes that the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery must be passed in Congress before the North and South find peace, or the opportunity to achieve this greater good could be lost forever. A route to peace presents itself early on, but if the two sides reconcile before the amendment is approved, then the rejoined Southern states will form a majority to prevent its passage indefinitely. Yet if Lincoln prolongs the war until the amendment is passed in the North, many more lives will be lost in what has already become the nation’s costliest conflict by far.
Lincoln borders between historic fiction and nonfiction in how it handles the story and supporting characters. With each new character introduction, text at the bottom of the screen indicates the character’s name and political or military position. Very helpful for those not knowledgeable of history, though perhaps distracting for those more interested in stories than facts.
Characterization is the film’s greatest strength, with all characters true to the historic person on which they’re based. Tommy Lee Jones injects his signature wit and sarcasm into the role of Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican anti-slavery firebrand. Sally Field as Mary Lincoln and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward take their roles seriously, and it pays off on the screen.
Stevens proves to be one of the most interesting characters. Not only is it fun listening to him verbally eviscerate Democrats left and right, but his character yields a surprising revelation near the end of the film. It turns out Stevens was in a loving, intimate relationship with his widowed colored housekeeper, Lydia Smith. Neighbors tacitly accepted the interracial couple as married.
Throughout the film, Lincoln tells many stories to his cabinet in the same way Jesus told stories to his disciples. Most of Abe’s stories were meant as jokes to lighten the mood, with some having subtle relevance to the circumstances.
Lincoln shows how God works all things together for the good, though sometimes He acts in a way that’s contrary to our conception of good. Say you’re a Northern soldier on the battlefield during the Civil War, and you watch your best friend get killed. Then after the war is over you discover that it could have ended earlier, and you might be very angry with Lincoln. Knowing that he did what he did for a higher purpose–to change the course of a nation forever through the abolition of slavery—would help you find closure in your friend’s death.
May we apply the same principles to every circumstance we find ourselves in. Even though the war is over in the heavens, remnants of the enemy still have the power to pick off individuals, but God could be allowing such events to distract the enemy as he falls into the ultimate trap.
Lincoln reminds us of the principles our country fought for in the Civil War: God-given rights to life and liberty regardless of skin color. But where we used to fight for inalienable rights, we now fight for entitlements–to live the way we want with the least responsibility. Some might claim that gay marriage and the murders of unborn children are their rights in the “pursuit of happiness.” Lincoln shows us how our concept of rights has degraded over time and reminds us what America used to be.
Lincoln is a good movie, but it’s missing many of the perks that the average moviegoer anticipates. There is no call to adventure, no climax; don’t expect to cry or hold your breath. Expect to learn about and remember one of our greatest presidents, who changed the course of our nation because of his conviction that all men are made in the image of God.
Trevor Main has a B.A. in fiction writing from Columbia College, Chicago, and a master’s degree in communication from Dallas Theological Seminary.
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