Lincoln, the Personalist President: A Movie Review


BY JOSEPH ANTONIELLO

There is so little to say about the recent Lincoln film that has not already been said. One could go on and on about the intimate portrait director Steven Spielberg has put together. One could go on and on about the wonderful portrayals of President Lincoln and his wife by Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, respectively. One could go on and on about whether or not the film was presented in a way that is entirely historically accurate. However, I would much rather take the film on its own terms and review its philosophical underpinnings, intentional or not.

The beginning of this film has a great reminder of the lives lost in Gettysburg, and the sacrifices African-Americans had to endure in those days: making less, getting less, but doing the same amount of work. Lincoln's response was one of loving support, entertaining the simple thought of black commanders and lieutenants. He did not dismiss the idea, but rather allowed it to be supported by the soldiers themselves, ending with the reminder that, yes, these men are Americans, free men, fighting for the country that has oppressed them. Lincoln, ably portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, seemed to take this to heart, and lived according to the great love he had for all men.

The force behind Day-Lewis's performance is not simply how he expressed the mannerisms of the President, or the interpretation of his voice, but the way he embodied the love of persons, constantly telling stories and anecdotes of simpler times. It is this love of persons that makes even his anger powerful; he is angry because of oppression and the terrible civil war that divides the country. In one of the more powerful and subtle parts of the film, Lincoln's son Robert -- portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- pleads with his father to allow him to join the Army and expresses that his father doesn't much care for him. The President slaps him and whispers "I can't lose you," as Robert storms off. This is not just the love of a father shining forth, but the hatred of war itself shown throughout the film that is embodied.

It is this hatred of oppression and war that was driving the President and the Republican Party in those days. I must admit, knowing little of history, learning that the President was a member of the Republican Party came as a surprise and a reminder of what politics has lost. The Republican Party in these days was one for persons, which it tries to retain even up to now, but it was this being for another that made that Party so popular in the first place. It was abolitionist and anti-war, the latter of which has been lost in the present day. I've heard some say that if the film was released two weeks earlier, it may have changed the entire course of our last election. Maybe, but I think there is a lack of genuine love -- or a perceived lack -- from modern politicians that made Lincoln so loved in the first place. It will not take a movie, no matter how great it is, but men and women who love to change the world for the better.

The film has subtle overtones of modern debate, especially regarding gay marriage and the right-to-choose mentalities pervading politics these days. It is especially interesting to see the Democrats in the film declare that the State has no right to make equal "those whom God has made unequal," using flawed arguments from natural law to defend slavery. It is these overtones that make the scenes in the House hard to bear in some ways, though it may advance serious discussion on the nature of persons, the nature of marriage, the role of religion in the public sphere, etc. It is the fight for equality that has surfaced in this day and age, and it is going to be hard to avoid these overtones, no matter how intentional or unintentional they may be.

All that said, the film is an excellent source of what a presidency looks like when it is based on love and not power; a presidency of care for others and not political posturing. This is a film about Personalism, dedicated to love of neighbors and self, but above all, the common good. Lincoln deserves the awards it will win, but not because it is a perfect film. No; it deserves all it will receive because it shows what America can be like when it is guided by love, not by our faith in politicians.

#volume2issue2 #unjustwar

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