Today may be George’s birthday, but I’m thinking about ‘Lincoln’

The very first time I posted a “Top Five” list on this blog — during the first year, on Jan. 9, 2006 — I threw away the opportunity.

I did the most obvious topic of all — best movies of all time — and while the five were all completely deserving, I didn’t really think about it. I listed them, and didn’t even bother to explain my choices. I guess I just thought there was all the time and space needed in the future to fill in the gaps.

Here were the five:

1. “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
2. “The Godfather.”
3. “Casablanca.”
4. “The Graduate.”
5. “High Noon.”

Recently, I had occasion to ask, “Why wasn’t ‘His Girl Friday’ on the list?”

Well, I was asking myself something similar last night when, just before hitting the hay, I watched a few minutes of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” after seeing it was available on Prime.

And of course, since I needed to get to bed, I spoiled myself by scrolling to the very best scene of all. I’ve talked about it here before. Which, for whatever reason, I can’t find on YouTube — although here’s a piece of it, for some reason messed up with a sepiatone effect.

It’s that scene when Abe explains to his confused Cabinet exactly why the 13th Amendment has to pass, and has to pass now, before the war ends. It is the most amazingly perfect explanation of a political situation — of perhaps the key legislative moment of our nation’s history — that I have ever heard or read. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation is on the ragged edge of uselessness (something many in the room likely understood, but as we see all the time these days, the audience does not), all the contradictions he has had to navigate to get this far without such an amendment — treating escaped slaves as “contraband,” which meant regarding them as property, which meant respecting the laws of the rebelling states, and sometimes regarding them as a foreign entity when his most core conviction is that they are not, and so forth…

And it’s all delivered by one of the best actors who’s ever lived, in what is probably his greatest performance, speaking in that backwoods aw-shucks way Lincoln had, the plain man so comfortably dissecting the most complex truths…

It’s amazing. And while this is the best, the film contains scene after scene like it. I remind you of the one in which Tommy Lee Jones takes his oh-so-self-righteous fellow Radicals to task by demanding that they try thinking, just for once, about the opportunity before them: “But… Hasn’t he surprised you?”

And so forth.

It would be amazing, a top-drawer film, on the most superficial of terms — based on mere wonder at how much they make Day-Lewis look like Lincoln. See the image above from my Prime account. I mean, if Lincoln didn’t look like that, he should have.

But there’s just so much more, in every detail. Of course, one is tempted to dismiss in on those grounds alone — Spielberg was such a mature master craftsman, at the peak of his game (which impresses us more — Scorsese’s raw “Mean Streets” or his polished “Goodfellas?”), and he had so many resources that previous generations never dreamed of. He was deliberately making a great film, and he did it.

Lacking that freshness factor, it seems out of place on a list that includes “Casablanca” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Those people had no idea whatsoever they were making something for the ages. It just happened. Poor combat-fatigued Jimmy Stewart was just trying to get a movie cranked out, having just returned from the war, and Capra was just doing that thing he always did, loving America the way he did…

But it’s right up there, however you count its virtues.

Anyway, I just wanted to say something about it, again (yes, I’ve praised it and praised it before).

Confession time: When I got the idea to write this, I was thinking this was Abe’s birthday (although Wikipedia had set me straight before I started writing). When I was a kid, and we celebrated both of them separately, I always had trouble remembering which was the 12th and which was the 22nd. I mean, come on — they’re practically the same number.

So I guess it’s just as well we mashed them into one day. Although, of course, I don’t think I’ve ever had that day off. Whatever…

9 thoughts on “Today may be George’s birthday, but I’m thinking about ‘Lincoln’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I couldn’t find a good copy of that best scene of all, described above, in which Lincoln so plainly and jovially explains the political situation to his Cabinet.

    But I did find THIS awesome scene from later, when he (justly and appropriately and effectively) blows his stack at his foot-dragging lieutenants:

  2. bud

    Except for The Godfather you pretty much nailed your original top 5. I actually liked “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, which came out about the same time, more than the the Lewis “Lincoln”. The Tim Burton quirkyness appeals to me more than yet another tiresome Lincoln history lesson. But Lewis did do a good job.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      As for “yet another tiresome Lincoln history lesson…” Of course, the word “tiresome” is inappropriate, but so is “another.” My point here was how extraordinary this telling of the story was, in all its complexity and profundity.

      I can only think of one other cinematic treatment that comes anywhere close, and I’ve praised it to the skies here before. At least watch the first minute and 18 seconds:

      Anyway, bottom line, if there is one thing this country needs more than anything else, 24 hours a day, it’s history of the perception and depth of “Lincoln.” It would just solve so many problems, and save the country…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It just amazes me, it is a thing to marvel at, that Spielberg worked this piece of monologue into something intended as a commercial product, something people would buy tickets to see, in America, the land of Reality TV:

        I decided that the Constitution
        gives me war powers, but no one
        knows just exactly what those
        powers are. Some say they don’t
        exist. I don’t know. I decided I
        needed them to exist to uphold my
        oath to protect the Constitution,
        which I decided meant that I could
        take the rebels’ slaves from `em as
        property confiscated in war. That
        might recommend to suspicion that I
        agree with the rebs that their
        slaves are property in the first
        place. Of course I don’t, never
        have, I’m glad to see any man free,
        and if calling a man property, or
        war contraband, does the trick…
        Why I caught at the opportunity.
        Now here’s where it gets truly
        slippery. I use the law allowing
        for the seizure of property in a
        war knowing it applies only to the
        property of governments and
        citizens of belligerent nations.
        But the South ain’t a nation,
        that’s why I can’t negotiate with
        ’em. So if in fact the Negroes are
        property according to law, have I
        the right to take the rebels’
        property from `em, if I insist
        they’re rebels only, and not
        citizens of a belligerent country?
        And slipperier still: I maintain it
        ain’t our actual Southern states in
        rebellion, but only the rebels
        living in those states, the laws of
        which states remain in force. The
        laws of which states remain in
        force. That means, that since it’s
        states’ laws that determine whether
        Negroes can be sold as slaves, as
        property – the Federal government
        doesn’t have a say in that, least
        not yet –
        (a glance at Seward,
        – then Negroes in those states are
        slaves, hence property, hence my
        war powers allow me to confiscate
        `em as such. So I confiscated `em.
        But if I’m a respecter of states’
        laws, how then can I legally free
        `em with my Proclamation, as I
        done, unless I’m cancelling states’
        laws? I felt the war demanded it;
        my oath demanded it; I felt right
        with myself; and I hoped it was
        legal to do it, I’m hoping still.

        Two years ago I proclaimed these
        people emancipated – “then,
        thenceforward and forever free.”
        But let’s say the courts decide I
        had no authority to do it. They
        might well decide that. Say there’s
        no amendment abolishing slavery.
        Say it’s after the war, and I can
        no longer use my war powers to just
        ignore the courts’ decisions, like
        I sometimes felt I had to do. Might
        those people I freed be ordered
        back into slavery? That’s why I’d
        like to get the Thirteenth
        Amendment through the House, and on
        its way to ratification by the
        states, wrap the whole slavery
        thing up, forever and aye. As soon
        as I’m able. Now. End of this
        month. And I’d like you to stand
        behind me. Like my cabinet’s most
        always done.
        As the preacher said, I could write
        shorter sermons but once I start I
        get too lazy to stop…

        What a wonderful thing. It says there’s always hope for us…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Reminds me of something I meant to write about a couple of years ago, but I don’t think I did….

        Back in ancient times, before COVID, when I used to take long walks downtown, a lot of my favorite paths wandered back and forth on the USC campus — which was only a block or so from my office. This was particularly wonderful when the kids weren’t there, like having one’s own royal park to enjoy in peace and quiet. But it could also be instructive when school was in session.

        One such day, I was walking along behind McKissick (by “behind,” I mean the opposite side from the Horseshoe — Google Maps calls it “Gibbes Green”), and I found myself behind two boys who were walking away from the place where history is studied these days — Gambrell, the other side of the pedestrian bridge over Pickens. (I say “these days” because we were walking TOWARD the place where it was taught during my own brief stint as a student in this place — Currell College.)

        That’s probably more scene-setting than you need. I will continue…

        One kid was doing what I suspect many millions of students regularly do today — complaining about having to study history, which is stupid and irrelevant (what does it have to do with business administration, or football?, so many would ask). He was going on and on about it.

        Then, a wonderful thing happened. The other boy defended history, saying it was worthwhile and important to understanding our world. I’m not saying he made a brilliant case, but he did all right, and actually got the other kid to back down, which makes him something of a hero.

        As I say, the other guy walked his position back a bit. He allowed how maybe some history was relevant, if it was recent enough. But, he said, gathering his forces to counterattack, what about if they want to hold you accountable for knowing stuff that happened FIVE HUNDRED YEARS ago?

        That was more than my hero could argue against. He agreed that 500 years back was ridiculous, but still, OTHER history wasn’t so bad…

        I had the feeling his concept of history wasn’t far from what I would call “current events…”

        1. Ken

          Had a neighbor say that her child did better at college once he got past all those “rinky dink” courses in English and History and moved on to classes that would “get him a job.” So, sadly, this is not just the attitude of young people.

  3. Bill

    Great Moments with Mr Lincoln @ 1964 World’s Fair was my fave and reexperienced in Disneyland
    Movies are so unreal ..

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