The Common Good

'Lincoln:' An Honestly Good Movie

Abraham Lincoln was a storyteller, so it’s fitting that his story has been hashed out on the silver screen — without vampires.

Photo from the official 'Lincoln' website.
Abraham Lincoln surveys the battlefield in the new film 'Lincoln.' Photo from the official 'Lincoln' website.

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And to say that it simply was “hashed out” would be an injustice to director Stephen Spielberg and everyone who contributed to Lincoln, a film that will be remembered as much for its beauty as the iconic character from which it gets its name.  

I’m not going to lie (pun intended), even though Lincoln is one of the most important figures in American history, I was hesitant about seeing a movie with the potential to be a two-and-a-half hour history class.

But I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Despite its length, the film drew me in and held my attention — even as a millennial growing up with the Internet, which I’m convinced has significantly chipped away at the already small attention span I have.

Daniel Day-Lewis is impeccable as Abraham Lincoln, and the star is joined by a cast that supports him with Oscar-worthy performances. Sally Field convincingly portrays the slightly maniacal Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones — clad with a curly brown wig as radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens — encapsulates the wholeness of the film itself: both Stevens and Lincoln are purposeful, believable, witty, and moving, with brief (but important) injections of humor.

That last bit about humor is nearly just as pivotal as all the elements before it. Bouts of levity in Lincoln have a way of filling in an otherwise heavy, serious movie without detracting from the importance of its subject matter.

Take, for example, the film’s playfulness with Lincoln’s reputation as a storyteller who was prone to spit out proverbs in response to almost any situation. There’s one instance where Secretary of State William Seward, has to ask, “What does that even mean?”

Like every good story, conflict fuels Lincoln, and the stakes obviously are high. Instead of settling for a biopic, Spielberg smartly hones in on the focal point of Lincoln’s presidency: his mid-Civil War attempt to pass the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery in the United States.

Lincoln needs a two-thirds majority vote in the House — 20 cast by democrats, who are, for the most part, vehemently opposed to racial equality.

The film acknowledges and plays with the timelessness of its conflict and with the iconic Lincoln himself. The implications of the 13th Amendment are colossal, affecting not only the war-torn nation of Lincoln’s day, but also millions of Americans in the future.

And Lincoln — who at one point is shown delivering a speech over the flame of a candle, almost painting him as a mythical figure — is convinced that no progress can be made as a nation, and no real good can be done, without removing the inhumane practice of slavery.

Lincoln cites Euclid’s first law, which states that two things equal to the same thing are equal, pointing out that throughout human history equality has been around like a song stuck in our collective heads. The conflict is timeless: it has existed since our beginning and will persist into our future.

The film also provides an inspirational look at what honest politics look like. Lincoln is overwhelmingly concerned with doing good — a seemingly stark contrast, it would seem, to too many of today’s politicians. He has a strong moral compass, to cite a metaphor employed in Lincoln, and he does not believe that an obstacle such as slavery can get in the way of journeying onward toward true north, toward good.

Such a sense of the “greater good” compels Lincoln to put forth the 13th amendment even though it may not be needed to end the Civil War. He cares more about helping other people than his political career.

What is more important, actually, is the way Lincoln accomplishes his good work. Honest Abe refuses to bribe democrats in exchange for votes. And, surprisingly, it pays off.

Turns out people — even politicians —  do have hearts.

If I can say anything about Lincoln, it’s that I learned a lot, and I’m sure teens all over our country will certainly find this more engaging than any history lecture they might imagine (and dread).

Even if there are no vampires or love triangles involved, they’ll remember the top hat and the story behind it.

That would be good.

Brandon Hook is the Online Assistant at Sojourners. He likes writing about music and movies, and is avid traveler and photographer.

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