Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” is being described as a masterpiece. Maybe, but it is a limited masterpiece. As a story, in comparison to Spielberg’s other films, such as “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” it is like comparing a halftime pep talk to a last-minute goal-line stand. As political history it is illuminating, focusing on a short period of time toward the end of the Civil War that has largely been obscured by the turbulent tapestry into which it fits. As a study of Lincoln, as the title obviously intends, it is brilliant, with superb acting, particularly in humanizing a man tormented both by a terrible war and personal problems. It captures his homely ability to tell amusing stories even in the most serious settings, stories that were often to the point of larger issues. That quality often perplexed those around him, even as they gradually recognized him as a leader of genius. That genius is now apparent in Lincoln’s vision, looking beyond the imminent end of fighting, taking action to ensure the end of slavery while it was still politically possible.
Unlike the aforementioned films, to fully understand “Lincoln” requires some historical knowledge, such as reading Team Of Rivals, upon which it is partly based. It is difficult today to appreciate the nuances of the 13th Amendment debate in the context of war, and the motivation of the strong personalities who took part in it. The film also leaves a dangling subplot – the tension between Lincoln, his wife Mary and his son Robert, over Robert, fresh from Harvard, wanting to serve in a war his mother desperately wanted him to avoid. The film leaves Robert in limbo. In fact, Lincoln eventually managed to get him a position on Gen. Grant’s staff near the end of the war. It was a nice Lincoln compromise, satisfying his son’s desire to wear a uniform in that epic conflict, while catering to his mother by putting him in a relatively safe position. Relatively, for Grant had some close calls and many generals, including Confederate heroes Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart and Albert Sidney Johnston, died in battle. But it takes a sharp eye to notice, near the film’s end, an officer who appears to be Robert Lincoln standing amid Grant’s staff when Robert E. Lee surrenders.
The timing of this film is rich, as many have noted. Lincoln’s machinations in offering patronage jobs to members of Congress who had just been defeated, but whose terms had not yet expired, in effect buying their votes for his amendment, is compared to the maneuvering in Washington today. Politicians are taking note. Just this morning Sen. Dick Durbin, appearing on “Morning Joe,” quoted from the film Lincoln’s line about showing the world “that Democracy is not chaos.” Maybe President Obama can take a page from Lincoln’s play book, practicing the art of statecraft. Promise his most ardent Tea Party opponents jobs as postmasters on Guam when they lose in the next election.