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My 12 for ’13: Lincoln & Lawyering

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 11…

At its best, Lincoln manages to capture that beautiful conflict at the heart of democracy – the question of the difference that exists between democracy as a form of government and simple majoritarianism. Is it possible to preserve these fine and noble institutions and structures while constantly working around them?

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Lincoln is a very strange film. It’s not a historical epic or a conventional biopic in the way that the trailers tried to suggest. As with any Spielberg film, there’s an undeniable amount of spectacle on display and a wonderful sense of scale. However, the great conflicts of Lincoln don’t involve armies clashing or wills colliding or even the shoe-horned Spielbergian father-son disagreements. Instead, they involve people trying to go about the business of doing the right thing while bending (but not breaking) the principles of government.

There’s a beautiful ambiguity to Lincoln, as it follows a President attempting to protect American democracy while mercilessly subverting it. The movie presents a version of Abraham Lincoln wrestling with the power he has had to grant himself to face this constitutional crisis. Lincoln suggests that the President has had to turn himself into a more absolute form of ruler than he would like to be, and that even he can’t answer the questions raised by the powers he has claimed.

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“I decided that the Constitution gives me war powers,” he explains, “but no one knows just exactly what those powers are. Some say they don’t exist. I don’t know.” When the public thinks of the American Civil War, images are conjured up of Gettysburg or the Battle of Fort Stevens. Those are literal conflicts, easy to visualise. Men fighting and dying, using guns and canons and swords. The conflict depicted in Lincoln is a lot more abstract. Democracy and government and power are all abstract concepts devised by men, but – Lincoln suggests – not wholly understood by men.

And so the American Civil War becomes a logical paradox, a concept that the drafters of the Constitution could never have properly envisaged. To attempt to understand the conflict in those terms is to find yourself talking in circles. Lincoln is the story of the President of the United States trying to define his own powers and his own authority in a situation with no precedent and no rules to govern it.

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So we end with lies and mistruths spoken in order to allow the approximation of law and order, to help grant the situation some semblance of normality, to suggest it’s something that these systems of laws can cope with. At one point, Lincoln explains the mental and rhetorical gymnastics he has had to engage in to assure rescued slaves their freedom:

I use the law allowing for the seizure of property in a war knowing it applies only to the property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations. But the South ain’t a nation, that’s why I can’t negotiate with ’em. If in fact the Negroes are property according to law, have I the right to take the rebels’ property from ’em, if I insist they’re rebels only, and not citizens of a belligerent country? And slipperier still: I maintain it ain’t our actual Southern states in rebellion but only the rebels living in those states, the laws of which states remain in force. The laws of which states remain in force. That means, that since it’s states’ laws that determine whether Negroes can be sold as slaves, as property – the Federal government doesn’t have a say in that, least not yet then Negroes in those states are slaves, hence property, hence my war powers allow me to confiscate ’em as such. So I confiscated ’em. But if I’m a respecter of states’ laws, how then can I legally free ’em with my Proclamation, as I done, unless I’m cancelling states’ laws? I felt the war demanded it; my oath demanded it; I felt right with myself; and I hoped it was legal to do it, I’m hoping still.

It’s a rather fascinating way of looking at the American Civil War, one quite distinct from the approach adopted by most such feature films. Here, the Civil War is presented as something that attacks and undermines even the preconceived notions of governmental authority and democratic power.

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And there’s a lingering ambiguity around Lincoln, as it follows the President’s attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment is an unambiguous good. It ends slavery, it frees an entire generation of people who have lived in the most horrific of circumstances. Ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment is something that is unquestionably essential for America to retain any legitimacy as the “land of the free.”

Setting the Thirteenth Amendment as a necessary good, Lincoln then invites its audience to consider the pragmatic realities of democracy. The Thirteenth Amendment does not pass as a validation of the lofty ideals of the democratic system. Even if Lincoln had been able to convince a majority of the population to support his position, there would still be vested interests at work inside the system conspiring against it. Personal and political motivations would cloud the issue.

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So, in order to pass this unambiguous good, Lincoln has to recruit his own team of lobbyists (Bilbo, Schell and Latham) to corral him the necessary votes. They do this using all manner of morally dubious and outright illegal techniques – they bribe, they blackmail, they coerce, they scheme, they lie. They completely and utterly subvert the democratic ideal by manipulating the system to reach their desired end.

At the same time, Lincoln also persuades the abolitionists to make false compromises and to impugn their own sense of morality to reach a satisfactory outcome. The President asks them to give ground, to concede a little on their absolute opposition to the enslavement of their fellow man. What system would require a person to make such profound and grave moral compromises in order to achieve some measure of justice?

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This is the beautiful moral dilemma at the heart of Lincoln, and what makes it an absolutely fascinating piece of cinema. It challenges the audience’s pre-conceived notions of how democracy should, and does, work. Is it possible to preserve and protect an idealistic institution by wilfully and consistently undermining and subverting it?

Lincoln himself tries to rationalise all this compromise, all this wavering. “A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing True North?” It’s a potent argument, but an unsettling one. Ultimately, it’s up to the audience to reach their own conclusions on these most provocative of questions.

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Lincoln doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe nobody does. But it has some striking questions.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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2 Responses

  1. Completely agreed. This film is filled with awesome ideas and an equally great ambiguous tone.

    Only reason it isn’t in my top 10 is that I count it a 2012 movie. 😉

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