Monday, November 19, 2012


Watching the sordid deals that take place behind the scenes in Congress should be disheartening, but when Congress finally does act to do the right thing, the end result is nevertheless inspirational. The messy process of passing a bill through the House of Representatives provides the central drama in the new movie Lincoln.  In this case the bill in question is a rather important one; it became the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. Against the advice of many in his cabinet, Lincoln wanted to get that bill through a lame duck session even before a more friendly Congress for his party would be seated, because he wanted emancipation irrevocably in place before the war came to an end, and the Confederate states would be re-admitted to the Union.  To accomplish that, Lincoln used every means at his disposal, including the promise of patronage jobs to opposition Congressmen who had just lost their seats in the election. James Spader provides entertaining comic relief as the leader of the team that uses any means necessary to secure the necessary votes for the Thirteenth Amendment.

In addition to the shady tactics used to obtain a few votes from the opposition party, the movie also illustrates the compromise Lincoln was forced to make to obtain the support of the conservative wing of his party, agreeing to entertain a peace delegation from the Confederacy, even though he knew that might jeopardize the whole project. One of the best scenes in the movie shows the president late at night in the War Department's telegraph office with two young telegraph operators. In the script, their conversation about the principles of Euclidean geometry leads Lincoln to decide to impede the progress of the Southern delegation, which turns out to be critical to passage of the amendment.  On the day of the vote, Lincoln is then shown resorting to a lawyer's trick of giving a literal answer to an imperfect question from the House, to mislead Congress about the status of these peace efforts.

Lincoln also had to make sure that the radical Republicans did not prevent passage of the bill by pushing too hard for their ultimate objective of complete equality. Lincoln persuades Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, that he must deny his own core beliefs and goals, in order to secure the interim goal of ending slavery.

Daniel Day-Lewis brings Lincoln to life. You can feel the weight on his shoulders of the terrible decisions Lincoln had to make, as well as see the indominable will Lincoln brought to bear to accomplish his object, and the flexibility, trickery and humor he needed to get it done.


  1. Great review, Joe. I saqw the movie this afternoon and really enjoyed it. In fact, I made a mental note to recommend it to you. I saw this first. Well done.

  2. Thinking more about the movie today on a long bike ride. I was struck by how emotionaslly involved Lincoln was and how he personally worked face to face with those who agreed with him and could help him -- and/or those he needed but were not quite ready to vote aqs he wished.

    For this outside observer, I see the rancor and may overlook the personal sacrifice. You probably understand this better than I as you get into the trenches.