I came to Lincoln without much knowledge of that period of American history, or the debates that have been had about it since (apart from reading a little of TNC’s discussion of history and how it’s discussed). So I’m very conscious that there’s a lot I don’t know. Team of Rivals is a book I’d love to get to in the future, but I haven’t yet.
For all that, I really enjoyed Lincoln. I think it does well to narrow down the incredible breadth of material (Lincoln’s life, the civil war, abolitionism, reconstruction) to simply hone in on the point of conflict – the passage of the thirteenth amendment.
I think it’s particularly fascinating because at its heart, all the grand themes and epic context boil down to a vote in the House of Representatives. This is what drives the conflict arcs in the narrative.
We see personal conflict – Lincoln’s challenges in his family, as father to an an anxious son and partner to a grief-stricken wife. But for me that wasn’t what drove the narrative – it all hung on that moment on the floor, when members of Congress called out their votes.
It’s fascinating how it all comes together. There are the internal factions, who must be appeased. A juggling act to satisfy the stronger abolitionists, and to placate those who want peace before a vote. There is the effort to turn the Democrats, those who can be turned; Spielberg portrays outright bribery, which seems to have some level of historical accuracy.
The film brings all this together, in a conflict that finds resolution in a vote. It’s harder in some ways, I think, to build a narrative when you’re constrained by historical facts. Rather than the passage of the amendment leading to some new, and unexpected challenge, the historical fact is that Lincoln was shot by an assassin who had been planning an assault for some time. History is cold and unfeeling, and does not recognise the significance of particular struggles. They are simply won or lost, and history moves on.
Spielberg’s cinematography does, however, give us a sense of the significance of the struggle. African-American soldiers fight for the Union, and you can see in the audience members watching the vote the personal anguish as it comes down to the line, and their skin colour is bandied around on the floor of the Congress as though it mattered.
This is an excellent piece of cinema – I really enjoyed it.