Will the Real Lincoln Please Stand Up

Books and Movies

Mae West once said:  “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

Although it may sound strange, this quote makes me think about Abraham Lincoln. In school we referred to Lincoln as Honest Abe: Straightforward, direct and uncompromising in his commitment to his ideas and ideals. Did we ever think of Lincoln as the consummate politician? Not in a heartbeat.

Enter Spielberg’s Oscar-worthy film, Lincoln, with screenplay by Tony Kushner, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Thanks to the intersection of extraordinarily talented actors, an exceptional script, and fastidious attention to detail, we’re transported back to 1865 where we experience Lincoln as he lived the last year of his life. Like the proverbial fly on the wall, we’re witness to it all.

In a beautifully nuanced performance, Day-Lewis portrays the besieged president as a man dealing with conflicting missions: his desire to drive the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery through the House of Representatives — and his wish to end the Civil War which would give the House a reason to postpone the Amendment. At the same time, Lincoln must deal with a fragile wife coping with the loss of one son, and pressuring him to keep their second son from enlisting.

Although Lincoln comes off as a brilliant and extraordinary humanitarian, he’s not the lily white statesman we were taught to admire in school. He’s also an astute, cunning negotiator who sniffs out opportunities in smoke-filled back rooms. He deliberates, cuts deals, and tells stories that often numb his listeners into submission. He cajoles and seduces to get what he believes in, even if that means offering bribes and patronage.

Lincoln is a master class in real politic. It’s a parable for our polarized times It’s a history lesson that shows us democracy is not the squeaky clean process we’d like it to be. And what I find amazing is that we don’t even realize we’re in class.

Only a movie as beautifully crafted as Lincoln makes learning about real democracy so incredibly fascinating. Only a president as beloved, complex and totally compelling as Lincoln could make this movie so believable. And only a time as divided as ours could make these compromises so necessary. Lincoln is a movie not to be missed. Bring your children. Let them witness democracy in action.  For this alone, Lincoln deserves to win the Oscar for Best Movie.




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