“You will procure me these votes.”
Rousing words on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, spoken with grit and a little bit of menace by a historical figure widely regarded as our greatest commander in chief. This new trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, opening Friday, was created for an international audience, but it speaks directly to Americans about another time when we were deeply, even violently, divided against each other.
The truly mesmerizing thing about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Abraham Lincoln is not just his folksy voice, or the authenticity of his costume, or how much his face seems to physically resemble the 16th president. It’s the way he reveals sides of Saint Lincoln that we tend not to think about: angry, frustrated, impatient, and willing to play rough for a just cause.
The movie could really be called The 13th Amendment, since it is entirely about Lincoln’s effort to push through legislation that would change the Constitution to forever outlaw slavery, but that fight speaks to who this president was as a man – and how he changed the culture of the country.
You can hear it in the words of the people resisting him – people who, it’s worth noting, are not representatives of the Confederacy, but Yankee congressmen working in the Union’s House of Representatives.
“Mr. Lincoln, I hate them all. I do. I am a … prejudiced man.”
“Congress must never declare equal those whom God created unequal!”
Of course, he has his allies too. We get a sense of Tommy Lee Jones’ abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, chewing up and spitting out his rivals: “Slavery is the only insult to natural law!” he growls. “Even worthless, unworthy you ought to be treated equally before the law!”
In the screenplay by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, Lincoln stews and fumes, explodes and threatens, and plays a little dirty pool when necessary, but he also picks at his own conscience over which compromises are worth the cost.
Buy votes? (“See what you can do…” and later “Get the hell out of here and get ‘em!”)
Delay the end of the war? (“Think of all the boys who’ll die, if you don’t make peace.”) Some could argue that’s a criminal act – and one with tremendous personal consequences, since it could pull his own enlisted son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) into harm’s way.
But we hear Lincoln talk about settling “the fate for the millions now in bondage, and unborn millions to come.” That tips the scales.
“Slavery, sir? It’s done.”
Day-Lewis says those words with such cool confidence, he’s sure to find his name at the top of a lot of ballots. Just not tomorrow’s.