This one was personal, deeply personal for me as a son of the South. As a child I used to read all about the Confederacy. I still have my Pictorial History of the Confederacy. I grew up in the old South before integration in the public schools, before integration at public restaurants, when there were still separate bathrooms at all sorts of public places, and one of them said ‘colored’. Not black men and then black women, but one bathroom labeled ‘colored’. I remember even seeing one of the last parades of Confederate veterans on Confederate Veteran’s Day as a small child. I remember going to school in Boston and being deeply shocked to discover that not all the schools there were integrated even in 1974, even though that happened in the South in 1968. I remember going into the houses of some African Americans and there on the wall would be pictures of Lincoln. Lincoln the great emancipator. Lincoln the greatest President we have ever had, and in so many ways the most human and humane one as well.
It is personal for me as well because I live in the town, Lexington Kentucky, where Mary Todd Lincoln’s house can be found, and where Jefferson Davis lived and went to college at Transylvania College. I have visited the Lincoln homestead out in the country in Kentucky, and have pastored a church not a stone’s throw from where Carl Sandburg wrote his epic multi-volume biography of Lincoln. Almost anytime I reach into my pocket looking for change, there is the face of Abraham Lincoln staring back at me.
And I can say to you today, that short of the Kingdom of God, I have come as close as I ever will to seeing him in the flesh. Daniel Day-Lewis has shown me the man himself in one of the most transcendent portrayals of a historical figure ever on film… complete with the speech and gait and stooped shoulders and facial hair and humor and zeal and profundity of the man himself.
Day-Lewis is of course a method actor, by which I mean he believes in embodying the man himself, becoming Lincoln for a period of time. He wouldn’t even allow when he was not being filmed for anyone to address him as other than Lincoln. He would stay in the part throughout the whole of the filming. The story goes that Spielberg came to him, offered him the part, and said he wanted to start filming in six months. Day-Lewis retorted that he needed a full year to study Lincoln and everything we know about him before he could do the part. Spielberg, who is not used to being told ‘not now’, decided it was the better part of wisdom to wait. I am thinking that now, he is ever so glad he did.
Day-Lewis gives not merely an Oscar worthy performance, he may have given the greatest performance I have ever seen. And he is surrounded by a superb cast that themselves are worth of awards— Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, to name but two. For two hours and 29 minutes you are mesmerized by the color, the pathos, the rhetoric of Lincoln and his compatriots.
This is not really a Civil War movie, and re-enacting buffs will not get much cud to chew on in this film. It is a movie about a four month period in Lincoln’s life, and a little more leading up the passing of the Abolition amendment, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and on to Appomattox. We learn about Lincoln the politician and compromiser, not above using lobbyists and promises of jobs to obtain votes for the amendment. We learn about his love for his son Tad, and his sometimes tumultuous relationship with his wife he called Molly. In the vein of ‘plus change plus la meme chose’, we see Congress deeply divided and always bickering and calling each other names, and getting not much accomplished. The movie is especially timely as Lincoln was pressing this matter just after being re-elected for a second term and dealing with a lame duck Congress.
There is nothing not to like about this movie. It is filmed beautifully, it is historically accurate to a very great extent (yes Lincoln was that funny a story teller), you can almost smell the mud, and the blood of war, and feel the weight of the world on Lincoln’s shoulders. You can see the moral dignity and yet at the same time the political and legal nature of this President. This is the kind of movie which can indeed change a man’s mind or a woman’s heart, at least in regard to understanding that human beings are capable of great moral good, and equally great moral evil. As for slavery, John Wesley had it right when he wrote to William Wilberforce calling it “the inexorable sum of all villainies”.
Someday, if you find yourself listening to Copland’s wonderful A Lincoln Portrait, or remember when you were asked to learn the Gettysburg address, you will think back to when you saw this movie and say— ‘behold the man’. Not Jesus, by a long shot, but someone doing the Lord’s work, a work for which he paid dearly with his very life. Ask yourself today— what does equality really mean? What price have we paid for freedom and democracy? When you ask those questions, you have asked the very ones for which Lincoln lived and died, and many another with him. He was a man ‘fitted’ to the times. We need another like him now.