Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lincoln [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review
Lincoln (directed by Steven Spielberg screenplay by Tony Kushner based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) is one of the best American films of the year and will earn a whole host of Oscar nominations including best film, best adapted screenplay (Kushner), best director (Spielberg) and best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day Lewis who plays President Abraham Lincoln [IMDb] in the film) as well as nominations for various other artistic/technical aspects of the film including best makeup, costume design and art direction.

Despite being a historical "biopic" about the towering figure of Abraham Lincoln, the film is IMHO remarkably timely because it's also largely about the "nuts and bolts" of the political process in a democracy.  That is, the film's about the Lincoln Administration's effort in the closing months of the American Civil War (and right after his reelection in 1864) to collect the requisite 2/3 of the votes in the House to pass what became the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which after being ratified by 3/4 of the States came to outlaw slavery in the United States.  And collecting the votes was _not_ an easy task.

Though the Republican Party of the time was abolitionist (indeed largely founded to promote the cause of slavery's abolition) the Democratic Party of the time was "the party of compromise."  Indeed the American Civil War was precipitated by the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States (the first Republican ever to be elected to the office).  And though the Southern States seceded from the Union as a result, Democrats in the still unionist North remained substantially represented in the Congress and they always counseled moderation to end hostilities between the unionist North and the secessionist South and _perhaps_ restore the union afterwards through some sort of a compromise regarding "States' Rights" / Slavery.

With the fortunes of the war (after 3 grinding years) turning decidedly in the North's favor by late 1864, Lincoln won re-election in November 1864 and the balance of power in the U.S. Congress shifted decidedly in the Republicans' favor.  HOWEVER, since there was a fear that the American Civil War may actually end before the inauguration of the new Congress (in February-March 1965) it was decided by the Lincoln Administration to push through the 13th Amendment through Congress _before_ the inauguration of the new Congress.  This meant cutting deals with the Democrats who had in the outgoing Congress enough votes to block the measure.

Thus the Lincoln Administration faced a very similar "vote counting" (and arguably "arm twisting" / "vote buying" ...) challenge that has characterized getting anything done in Congress in the United States over the last 20 or so years. (Indeed a year ago, I reviewed a fascinating documentary called How Democracy Works Now on the contemporary political process in the United States where the overwhelming lesson was that of counting (and more to the point, getting) the votes: "to get anything done in the U.S. Congress today, one has to get 60 votes (out of 100) in the Senate.")   In Lincoln's time, the challenge was getting 2/3 of the votes in the House.

How would one do that?  How would one get members of the opposing party to vote with you?  Well Jesus himself told his disciples: "I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Mt 10:16).  And in the film, Lincoln himself admonished an abolitionist purist (played by Tommy Lee Jones) appalled by his Administration's "vote buying" tactics telling the purist: "A compass is certainly valuable in navigation, but it can only tell one which direction is north.  It can not tell one anything of the mountains, swamps, rivers and gorges that may separate one from one's goal.  So what good is it to head purely in one direction if we only end up in a swamp?"  So basically the film advocates a "whatever it takes" approach (hopefully within reason) to get a noble goal accomplished. (And yes, the opponents of a noble cause can also employ similar tactics to block the effort).

In any case, one gets the sense that resolving even something as unambiguously clear (today) as the question of abolishing slavery was difficult to push through Congress (even _after_ hundreds of thousands of deaths on the battle field in service of resolving the question).  Can we therefore be surprised that our times may be difficult and "full of noise" as well?

Finally, does this film deserve an "R" rating?  To be honest except for a few bad words and a couple of relatively short battle scenes (the story took place in the context of the American Civil War after all) I honestly don't understand why this film got an "R" rating rather than being rated "PG-13."  On the other hand, the dialogue itself is rather complex and I don't think that children younger than 7th or 8th grade would really understand it.  Still, sometimes the rating system doesn't make sense.   So parents, if you have a child who's in junior high or high who's interested in seeing this movie, then please don't hesitate to take him/her to it.  The film is excellent and certainly one of the best of the year.

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