I don’t like crowded theatres, and this one was. I can’t recall, however, seeing a single young person, and when I asked my American literature class the following Tuesday if any had seen it, not a hand went up.
They, of course, have a right to make decisions on how they will invest their time and dollars, but as we neared 1865 in the class, I had hoped they would be interested. We had read slave narratives and the poetry of abolitionists. Earlier we had examined points of view on the content of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with special attention to the Bill of Rights.
I had indicated on the syllabus that our last readings for the class, not found in our Norton anthology, would be an excerpt on the assassination of Lincoln from Elizabeth Keckley’s “Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House” and Asia Booth Clarke’s account of her brother from “John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir.”
From articles in news magazines and newspapers I had read before seeing the movie, I was aware that the focus would be on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to end servitude except as a punishment for crime and that Daniel Day-Lewis would play Lincoln, Sally Field would play his wife, and Steven Spielberg was the director. I, of course, expected Academy Award nominations for directing and acting and will certainly not be disappointed.
As we walked to the car following the film, I assumed the role of director. Would I have begun with war-weary soldiers, both black and white, reciting the Gettysburg address to Lincoln? No. That seemed syrupy sweet to me. I would have begun with a battlefield scene that is featured toward the end of the movie because that demonstrated in a dramatic fashion the brutal ugliness and the cost in human lives of the conflict.
That would have made the viewer’s more sympathetic to the wheeling and dealing, the payoffs, the compromises that were essential to get the required votes for passage of the amendment.
The audience sees Lincoln and his staff as masterful in working through Congress to amass votes; they see the anger and hatred of those who opposed him; they see the vacillation of some as they considered their votes.
The film also shows Lincoln as a father, loving his children, deep in grief over the death of a son, and supporting a wife who is angry, depressed, and fearful for her family.
The role of Elizabeth Keckley, the confidant to Mary Lincoln, is a winning performance by Gloria Reuben, surely up for an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress as is Tommy Lee Jones for supporting actor as outspoken abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.
Since so many of us have blanks where American history is concerned, I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia article on the movie online prior to seeing the movie. You’ll have a keener understanding of why this amendment was so important at such a pivotal time in our country’s history. You will also have a better understanding the uproar when President Barack Obama takes actions that some consider not within his purview as commander in chief.