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  • The Intimate and Ugly Politics of Emancipation
  • Kirt H. Wilson (bio)

Abraham Lincoln, film criticism, civil war, emancipation, race

Toward the end of the film Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln is portrayed at the head of a small column of soldiers. An accompanying subtitle informs the audience that the president is on a battle-field just outside of Petersburg, Virginia on April 3, 1865. In the scene, Lincoln and the men behind him guide their horses carefully among the destroyed bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers. Smoke encircles the small group, giving the devastation a sense of immediacy, as if the echo of cannon fire only just had ceased. Mounds of earth and uniformed bodies are jumbled together with wagon wheels and overturned artillery. The images are not just somber; they induce a sense of horror. Historians maintain that the nine-month siege of Petersburg concluded with a Union victory, but the death that pervades this scene in Lincoln leaves no room for glory or honor.

Following the climatic and celebratory moment when the Thirteenth Amendment passes the House of Representatives, the scene at Petersburg seems to undermine the film’s explicit lesson that the constitutional amendment would not only hasten the war’s end, it also would ensure the end of oppression. Lincoln’s face is gaunt as he surveys the carnage, and although Petersburg is but one location, the movie communicates to modern audiences that the president’s thoughts have drifted to the [End Page 121] human costs of the entire war. Sitting on a porch after Lincoln’s tour of the battlefield, General Ulysses S. Grant (played by Jared Harris) tells the president, “By outward appearance you’re ten years older than you were a year ago.” Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln replies, “Some weariness has bit at my bones.” He then stops speaking, looks away from Grant and out beyond the camera’s field of vision. Shaking his head slightly he continues, “I never seen the like of it before, what I seen today. Never seen the like of it before.” After a slight pause, Grant replies, “You always knew that, what it would be, intimate and ugly. You must have needed to see it close when you decided to come down here.” This exchange summarizes for me the movie Lincoln, and it suggests, as well, both the genius and the problem that the film represents.1

One of the most famous political adages of the twentieth century is attributed to Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.” I contend that the movie Lincoln extends that proverb in an effort to remind modern audiences that politics is not only local, it is also personal, intimate, and often ugly. For every sweeping grand moment in Lincoln, there are many more moments of local intrigue and intimate, ugly struggle. The movie begins with the struggle of men in the mud, fighting with bayonets, fists, elbows, and arms. Some of the movie’s most affecting moments involve the struggle between a wife and husband who love each other deeply but also, sometimes, loathe and resent the other for what he or she cannot give. The film features the struggle of parents and children. Death took Willie Lincoln before his time; nevertheless, his ghost remains, haunting a marriage and the president’s decisions. Contrary to the wishes of his mother and father, Robert Lincoln aches to leave the shelter of home and privilege, to be counted among the brave who did something meaningful during the country’s greatest trial. Finally and most prominently, Lincoln features the struggles of enormous egos, eloquent oratory, abolitionist principle, and personal ambition, as the president’s agents strive to coerce or buy the votes necessary to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.

In the hands of director Stephen Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the claim that all politics is personal, intimate, and ugly is not a condemnation. Far from it; the personal, intimate, and ugly dimensions of politics transform the legislative history of the Thirteenth Amendment into an engaging, even beautiful drama. Loosely based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, the movie implies that our [End Page 122] leaders serve the country best when they use...


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pp. 121-127
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