Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Super Delegates: Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln" (2012)

Scene from Lincoln
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Release Date: November 16, 2012
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Doris Kearns Goodwin (Book), Tony Kushner (Screenpay)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)
-Best Production Design
Oscar Nominations: 10
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field)
-Best Supporting Actor
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Costume Design
-Best Original Score
-Best Sound Mixing
-Best Editing
Delegates in Question:
-President Abraham Lincoln

*NOTE: Part of the Abraham Lincoln Series.

There are few presidents in American history as revered and as iconic as Abraham Lincoln. He was the 16th president of the United States, best known for ending slavery and serving during the Civil War. Alongside Richard M. Nixon, he is probably one of cinema's favorite presidents, if just because of his eccentric personality in films like Young Mr. Lincoln where he was a simpleton who learned how to govern with respect. It is an image that one would like to have out of their presidents. In fact, the upbeat man with a stovepipe hat has largely been portrayed as chipper for most of his time on screen. He is the diligent hero who embodies the best that America has to offer, free of any personal conflicts.

That is something to consider before looking into the reality, specifically as it relates to Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography "Team of Rivals." The story shifted into discussing a man who was a manic depressive and whose wife would end up with mental issues. The broad strokes are still true. He did serve the country with a reverence that soldiers in both the Confederate and Union armies could admire. He was a great public speaker. However, Goodwin notes that he was entirely different as an individual. His coach rides were often met with odd jokes given by a man in a hushed tone. He wasn't antisocial, but preferred to be alone. In fact, it was because of his manic depression that his greatest achievements - on top of his personal goal to leave the world a better place - were achieved. It was in improving the lay of the land that Lincoln could be distracted from his emotions.

It is why director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln may be more revolutionary than it's given credit for. While not the most riveting depiction of Lincoln, it paints him in stark contrast to Henry Fonda's upbeat Young Mr. Lincoln. Gone were the smiling heroes who had an infinite stream of optimism. Now there was the weathered man who contemplated issues in elaborate detail. The film's focus wasn't on his most iconic moments, but the United States following the Civil War; specifically in regards to the 13th Amendment. Lincoln believed in the value of abolishing slavery at the cost of making powerful enemies that would attempt to assassinate most of his cabinet while leaving some brutally wounded and himself dead in a theater box.

History has shown that the 13th Amendment would eventually be passed. However, Lincoln is more obsessed with the road to agreement. There is the endless pleading with the opposition, who in return bicker behind Abraham Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) back. The film is an elaborate courtroom drama akin to 1776, but with more political discourse and a dour sense of failure. The film features top notch Tony Kushner monologues in which various political figures give speeches justifying their position. It also features the emotional toll that it plays on the already introverted Lincoln, whose insular speculation takes a toll on his family. He forbids his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the army to strong opposition. There is the sense that his legacy won't be preserved as his family turns on him. All because he is confident in getting this one civil right law passed.

He isn't the first president to want equal rights. John Quincy Adams famously fought for it during Amistad: another Spielberg film about racial inequality. However, Day-Lewis' performance does suggest that he wanted it even if his exterior appearance didn't sometimes suggest it. He believed in the power of the nation, and it involved overcoming a taboo that had long been institutionalized in the country. As much as cinema wants to paint him as the perfect hero, he definitely struggled to become the standard bearer for American Presidents. After all, he was the first Republican party president: a feat that gets taken for granted, especially as third parties in the 21st century are just as much at a loss when it comes to being elected to the highest job in the land.

In the most literal sense, Lincoln is relevant to American politics as recent as a few days ago. Much like Ted Cruz quoting The American President, both major party candidates found themselves in a debate over not Lincoln the real life president, but Lincoln the cinematic president. Hillary Clinton made comments suggesting that it is okay to hide the truth from the American people if it will benefit the country. She cited Lincoln, claiming that the president walked a fine line between hiding some information while using others to manipulate voters and get his plan passed. While it could be construed as yet another case of Clinton lying to her peers, it does suggest that politics aren't exactly black and white. While it makes an argument that "Honest Abe" wasn't so honest, the real conversation was about playing the field to benefit the country by using different arguments for different groups.

There have been only 14 amendments since the story of Lincoln. There have been many filibusters arguing for different cases in that time over a century. The political process makes it difficult to make any intelligible change. While it isn't specifically similar to Lincoln in the 20th and 21st century, it does have the same sense of painstaking time and dedication. If someone believes in a cause, they need to be convincing. In fact, the ratification process to get approval can often last months and years. The 13th Amendment took around 10 months to reach its final stage. In fact, the most recent amendment (Amendment 27: Delays laws affecting Congressional salary from taking effect until after the next election of representatives.), passed in 1992, took a reported 202 years to pass. While this is an outlier, it still shows how dedicated some can be to the cause. 

While Lincoln doesn't have the familiar upbeat Lincoln, it does have the American spirit in its veins. Having been worn by the problematic landscape around him, the 16th president faced persecution just to make the country a better place. It is something that America as an ideal nation would like to strive towards. There are those hard working politicians who believe that their cause is important and will make a career out of changing that one aspect. It would be difficult to name one, but most would cite Lincoln as the honorable influence that they strive to. It isn't because he was a manic depressive who distracted himself with fixing justice. It was because he was dedicated to doing his job right. He had to make the tough decisions. It was just common sense.

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