Post Letter: Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ humanizes a monument

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Shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s final breath on the morning of April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, standing over the slain leader, is supposed to have remarked that “now he belongs to the ages.” Re-creating the life and times of a man so revered in American history is certainly a difficult task, but one that Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln overwhelmingly succeeds at.

The film covers the final four months of Lincoln’s life and illustrates the struggle to assure passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the 16th president is both sympathetic and gripping. From telling long-winded stories to make a point, something Lincoln enjoyed doing, to clashing with his oldest son Robert about the young man’s wish to join the Union Army, Day-Lewis’ depiction does not disappoint. In fact, this film solidifies the method actor’s place as one of the great performers of his generation. The movie also benefits from solid supporting roles from Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field among others.

Performances aside, what makes Spielberg’s Lincoln so compelling is that it reminds us just what was at stake during the American Civil War: the United States of America and “the fate of human dignity.” Early on filmgoers are treated to Lincoln justifying to his cabinet just why the 13th Amendment is so critical. The war is in its final stages and Union victory is almost certain. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a wartime measure and would most likely be deemed unconstitutional when the war ended. In order to prevent the South from continuing on with slavery once hostilities ceased, a constitutional amendment was necessary.

The conundrum facing the president is whether to push forward in support of the amendment or engage in immediate peace talks with confederate negotiators. Throughout the film, Lincoln is repeatedly advised to abandon the amendment and seek peace, but he demurs. During an impassioned defense of his desire to earn enough votes for passage he clearly articulates the magnitude of what his administration is trying to accomplish, “abolishing slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come.”

Ultimately, Spielberg’s greatest achievement is that he humanizes Abraham Lincoln, an historic figure known only as a monument to many. Through scenes of the president tending to his youngest son, Tad, to Lincoln wandering the halls of the White House late into the night contemplating the momentous decisions before him, moviegoers earn a sense of the man and the challenges he faced. This film will be remembered as one of the best cinematic portrayals of United States history. You should go see it!

Matt Jacobs is a graduate student studying history.
 

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