"With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..." Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865 (Second Inaugural Address, Washington DC)
Steven Spielberg's epic Lincoln is a magnificent study in character. The screenplay itself is a bit long and winding, full of 19th Century political intrigue and all the details of domestic life in the White House at the end of Lincoln's presidency. But what cannot be denied is the incredible richness that the actors brought to the historical characters we see on screen.
First and foremost, Daniel Day-Lewis does a remarkable job embodying the sixteenth president. For over two hours, we get to see Abraham Lincoln as never before - a mix of humor, zeal, compassion, and melancholy in the face of the United States' most divisive period of history.
Day-Lewis shows us a man who was politically shrewd but firm in his convictions that slavery was wrong and all people must be treated equally and with loving compassion. And to calm himself in a daily grind that would break most people, Lincoln is seen here as a simple country boy who loved telling campfire stories in whatever setting he found himself - from the war room to the bedroom, with soldiers, congressmen, servants, and whoever would listen to him.
We know of oft-repeated statements the historical Lincoln once proclaimed, "A house divided against itself cannot stand..," "Four score and seven years ago...," and from his Second Inaugural Address, "With malice towards none, with charity for all,, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..." But up until now, excepting students of history, few of us knew the humanity behind such grand eloquence.
In this film, we understand the complexities of the man: political yet personal, calculating yet compassionate, commanding yet willing to listen to those around him. Decades now removed from this man, we often wonder why those on the right and left, the conservative and liberal, the religious and irreligious all hail Lincoln as a hero. Lincoln shows us one possible reason... the man was truly a man for all seasons: a balancing act on the tightrope of history.
As we seek balance and tapping into all the gifts God has given us, we can look to Abraham Lincoln as a role model. While our daily struggles are not keeping the Union intact in the face of secession, they can seem so. It can be easy to verge to one side or another - to be aggressive without compassion, or to be melancholy without hope - but we are called to live on a similar tightrope - and like Lincoln, make it across to the other side, whenever that end may come for us.
Daniel Day-Lewis is certainly the focal point for the film, but there are other great studies of character: Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), the devoted wife whose life seems to be crumbling around her, yet kept stable and calm by a loving and solid husband - and my personal favorite in the film, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican abolitionist whose dreams of racial equality are unfolding before his eyes in the last four months of Lincoln's presidency.
For much of the movie, Stevens appears as a curmudgeon, bitterly fighting what seems like a losing battle (with political views that are about a century ahead of his time). He bristles with fellow congressmen, political opponents, and the president himself. Stevens demands perfection from society, and that perfection cannot come soon enough for him. Anyone who gets in the way of that utopia is often on the receiving end of Stevens' fiery sermons and political speeches.
We may be or we may know people like Stevens, angry and bitter - and a person others may not want to be around. Tommy Lee Jones is an actor who probably didn't need to do much acting for this part, either. He gives us a portrayal that we both support and cringe at the same time.
But once again, Lincoln shows us that character is everything - and the entirety of that character is not necessarily what we see on the surface. Late in the film, we come to find out the reason for his single-minded dedication to abolition and equality, and as radio commentator Paul Harvey often said, "and that's the rest of the story."
Character is important. Character is key. Lincoln was one that shown marvelously in public, and Stevens is one that was defined by what was private. We should not be quick to judge one or the other too quickly, for like each one of us, there is much more of the story yet to tell.
Perhaps that is why Spielberg took two-and-a-half hours to tell this story. Real character is not something that can be assessed in a moment. It takes depth and time. It takes patience.
As we look around to the people and characters in our own lives, perhaps we need to take some time there as well - to truly understand who it is that God has placed along our path. Our judgements of others can come quick, like those who quickly assessed Stevens or Mary Todd... or even Lincoln. Chances are, behind even the most private of people, there is a grand story yet to be told. May we discover those stories - and be willing and compassionate enough to enter into them in new ways.