Since seeing the movie about the last months of Abraham Lincoln's life, the period of his life when he was trying to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that prohibited slavery and working to resecure the Union and bring the Confederate States back into the fold, I have seen Lincoln described as the American Sphinx. Before the movie, I would not have known why. Now, it makes perfect sense.
My acquaintance with Lincoln before the movie was through the ubiquitous image on pennies and five dollar bills, the pictures in American classrooms hanging on the wall and, later, a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Memorial is immensely moving, more than any of the other Memorials in the Capitol as I see them, dominated by the immense sculpture of Lincoln sitting and observing in majesty and compassion, surrounded by writings he made that had an eloquence seldom matched in American history. Impressive as they are, all of these images are static and somehow two-dimensional.
Daniel Day Lewis and Steven Spielberg have changed that. Together, they have managed to bring Lincoln to life like never before. He becomes a living, breathing presence, meticulously researched by Day Lewis - he read over one hundred books on Lincoln preparing for the role - for the consummate actor took on as many of the characteristics of Lincoln as history has recorded. The voice is high and reedy, the gate somewhat awkward, the posture slumped. But, it is the portrayal of wisdom, perception and character that leaps off the screen as Lincoln engaged a momentous time, filled with unimaginable potential for loss, working with others of often lesser and more often different visions of what was possible.
Not giving the movie away, one scene most illustrative of this is when one of his potential allies who, like so many of our modern politicians, is unbending in his idealism threatening to derail Lincoln's desired goal through legislative inflexibility. The legislator tells Lincoln that one must have a moral compass that one stays true to. Lincoln responds that it is true that the compass will unerringly show the direction north and thus keep one on a straight course, what the compass cannot show on that straight path is the swamps one will encounter that must be detoured around. This is one of the best illustrations of political understanding and balance that I've ever seen.
Throughout the movie, Lincoln employs folk wisdom and comraderie while remaining something of a mystery at all points to those around him. Thus, the American Sphinx. It had to be so, for he saw beyond what his contemporaries saw and that always made him something of a mystery to them. His interaction with his tormented wife and the torments that he experienced on that life journey traversing terrain with mountains and swamps is what gives depth to the performance, illuminating his almost superhuman effort to fulfill his calling.
I encourage one and all to see this marvelous movie and put aside petty politics for awhile to see what high political aspiration can achieve. It is Hollywood, of course, but it is Hollywood at its best, weaving a mesmerizing tale that draws the viewer into a world so fully that they exit enriched with new understanding. The movie making art cannot aspire to more.