Talking Pictures in Review: Lincoln

A few thoughts for you dedicated film fans out there who weren’t able to make it to the Talking Pictures discussion of Lincoln. As usual, there’s much more that could be said than can be included here.

First, a couple of notes on the artistic qualities of the film:

  • In my judgment, the film does a nice job in encouraging the viewer to feel the significance of the historical moment. We witness, even if briefly, the terrible cost of the Civil War and the weariness of those who prosecute it. We must face the attendant political complexities and the far-reaching consequences of decisions made even as the fate of millions, both black and white, more immediately hangs in the balance. The film may occasionally over-communicates this sense of historical importance, but on the whole, the mood fits the moment. 
  • Happily, most of the film’s main characters are presented as complex, rather than flat, one-dimensional actors. And Lincoln has no shortage of fine acting performances. David Strathairn’s Secretary of State William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones’ Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln all deserve praise. But Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing short of extraordinary as the titular character, so much so that when I saw a picture of the real Lincoln after viewing this movie it actually looked odd to me. Day-Lewis gives the audience a nuanced blend of palpable humanity and legendary political/rhetorical genius. The resulting character’s charisma is evidenced throughout the movie, not the least of which being the sense of sadness one feels at his passing.

As to important questions and ideas that Lincoln brings to the fore:

  • With its vivid portrayal of the cultural blind spots of the Civil War era, the film encourages us to think about what subsequent generations—or more importantly, eternity—will judge to be our own failures. In saying that, however, it would be a mistake to assume that all cultural changes since that time amount to “progress,” or a collective step in the right direction. In fact, C. S. Lewis once remarked that one great benefit of looking into the past is to see clearly what really amounts to nonsense in your own age (see “Learning in Wartime”). A film like Lincoln is an aid to the kind of reflection that looks for both positive and negative aspects in the way our culture has changed. 
  • Lincoln is also a thoroughgoing testament to what Blaise Pascal called “the greatness and wretchedness of man.” The awful toll of a war bound up with the inhumanity of slavery is set right alongside numerous examples of moral clarity and fortitude. Nor does this paradox on display only at the macro level. It’s also evidenced within individual characters, where virtues intertwine with imperfections and base means are employed to noble ends. All in all, it is a decidedly faithful rendering of the fact that human being retain some of the glory of their maker, despite the all-too-apparent scars of our own sinful rebellion.
  • Having seen the political sausage making of the film, we might do well to ask a number of important questions. When do ends justify the means? What’s the film’s answer? Would a biblical Christian worldview agree? When should a principled stance be moderated by prudence, by understanding the political realities of the moment? When should we settle for a “half a loaf” so to speak? Does the rough and tumble world of politics mean we should be less involved as Christians or more? What are the costs if we aren’t in that arena? What are the challenges if we are? How should we address them?
  • Whether intentional or not, perhaps the biggest political and moral question the film raises is this: what makes something right? Is it, in America at least, simply what is contained in the Constitution? Is it, as the film overtly suggests at least on one occasion, located in the popular will of the people? Particularly when that will can and does change on a given question? Or are we, at the end of the day, confronted with the idea that some other standard exists outside of ourselves, one that we cannot shape to our own desires but rather calls us to align to it. And if this last possibility is true, as I think many of us will eventually acknowledge (albeit often inconsistently), where does this standard come from and where do we find it? As the aforementioned C. S. Lewis famously explored in Mere Christianity, it’s to these timelessly relevant questions that Christianity has much to say.

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