Last year I watched Argo at the cinema and walked out having enjoyed it, but never thinking that it might be the best movie Oscar winner. Last night I caught up with one of the beaten contenders, Lincoln. I thought it was very good also, and the sort of movie that might easily have received the top gong. It wa vivid in portraying a time and place, and Daniel Day-Lewis was marvellous as Lincoln – he’s been one of the very best actors going around for a while now.
Regardless of all that, my interest in this film is less about the relative quality of movie-making, and much more about the story, the history, and ultimately, the man.
It’s funny how Abraham Lincoln seems so universally revered, even in such a far away place like Australia. I grew up believing him to be some kind of paragon of humble virtue. My nephew, not yet 15, is fascinated by him. Through all the tales told of him he has come across as an endearing, unpretentious character of great moral courage and fortitude. His folksy ways, naive wisdom, his infuriating home spun parables and above all his innate belief in right, justice, and the best in humanity set him apart from so many lesser leaders.
Is that a true reflection of the man? It is, pretty much, according to the movie. It’s hard not to be drawn to such a character as portrayed on screen. Truth of it is that though there were some who reviled him in his day, he also drew unnatural affection, even love, from the people he led. I think they recognised something that has come to be enshrined in history: the innate decency and honesty of the man.
Watching I wondered how American history might be different, and the USA of today a different place, had there been another man but he in the White House in the Civil War years? How would the war have ended? Might it never have started? Would the slaves have been emancipated? And so on. The other side of this question is to ask what we would remember of Lincoln if there was no Civil War for him to deal with? Would be seen as just another serviceable, even mediocre, president; or would he had found something else to elevate above the average? Did the hour make him, or did he make the hour?
Watching something like this it is virtually impossible not to reflect on the sorry state of our leaders today. I wondered what our leaders would think watching this. Would they be inspired? Would they question their own motives and actions? Would they be roused to more altruistic, even idealistic, leadership? On all counts I thought not. Such are our leaders today that I think they are incapable of such reflection. The door is closed: they see a piece of entertainment and move on from it. In the place of that conscience inside instead there are out of touch advisers whispering in their ears about polling and tactics. Their thinking is so shallow, so driven by expediency, that they are no longer capable of that deep thought required to formulate an independent vision of what can be, what should be, and how.
I’m a cynic, clearly, and it is movies such as this which highlight the fact. The times are very different now, but people not so much changed in their vital make-up. Attitudes and beliefs generally are more liberal, but it is the shift in the times, not the person. We are still subject to the same influences as ever. The times may be different, but as people we still seek the same things as we ever have. You can argue what they are. For me it is clarity of vision, moral strength, independence of mind, intellect applied to the world we live in, and leadership that combines compassion with honesty, and the passion to make a real difference.
This is possible. The movie exposed Lincoln’s wily cunning to achieve a just end that he knew he could not let go of. Amid the humanity that drove him there was the knowledge – far above anyone else of that time – is that the Union could not survive the civil war without the emancipation of the slaves becoming law. It was a bitter struggle, but how poetic it is to watch such a story knowing that the US president himself is black. That’s how far things have come, and how far ‘normal’ has shifted.