Lincoln : A Timeless Tale of Fighting Inequity

This undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox shows, Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraha
This undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox shows, Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from the film, "Lincoln." (AP Photo/DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox, David James)

I screened Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, an epic biography of a man, politics, a nation at war, and the timeless battle to dismantle the structures of inequity less than a day after Barack Obama was reelected president of the United States of America. The two presidents, separated in time but not mission, have faced and fought entrenched interests that violate the principle of "all men are created equal." While Abraham Lincoln opened the door for a black man to eventually become president of this country -- then unimaginable -- his victory did not end the battle for equality he so ably fought, and for which he, too, "laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."

Lincoln, the film, gives us a thin wedge of American history during the Civil War, leading to the passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) and concluding with the president being declared dead by his army surgeon, surrounded by his "team of rivals" (the Doris Kearns Goodwin book credited as a principal source for the story). This short slice of time allows for a detailed and intricate tale to be told, one that is ultimately kind to the folly of the ways of government and the men (then) who rule. Government, especially democracy, is messy and tainted by human faults, yet can rise to the lofty aims it so declares when brilliantly and unrelentingly led by individuals who, by character and circumstance, find a way to realize the decreed ends for which they have been selected to achieve.

Our nation is split, a civil war rages, then and now: In the 1860s it was on bloody battlefields, between northern and southern states, and within Congress; today the battle is blessedly non-violent, yet creates great rents in the fabric of our society and among its political and governing bodies. Obama wins the general election, but the day after, we realize that his two-year fight to do so leaves him facing the same resolute opposition and shameless polemics that have commanded the airwaves since before his first election. He too will have to use methods virtuous and crafty, make deals and deliver favors, and put himself personally into the fight, as did Lincoln to win the final votes necessary to pass the 13th Amendment. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done. Lincoln himself said, in a eulogy he gave for Zachary Taylor (who died of natural causes as president in 1850): "The Presidency, even to the most experienced politicians, is no bed of roses; and Gen. Taylor like others, found thorns within it. No human being can fill that station and escape censure."

Some focus on Lincoln as a melancholic, as indeed it seems he was. Perhaps this condition added to his great empathy and his resolve in contesting hopelessness; perhaps it was instrumental to the ways he learned to bear pain and fight the good fight. But melancholia is not a precondition for sainthood, nor the only cross that is borne on the way to greatness. The film unsparingly shows us Lincoln's grief and loneliness, but makes no claim to its causes.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave us Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans and Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (for which no one else could possibly compete for that year's Best Actor Academy Award), among other indelible roles, delivers a Lincoln robust in prairie wisdom and cunning, bathroom humor, and bottomless suffering; this itself is a feat to behold. Much is being said of his high-pitched rendition of Lincoln's voice, all deservedly positive for the credibility it conveys. Day-Lewis has a team of rivals himself, who strengthen his thespian cause: Sally Field, tiny yet grand in her power, is Mary Todd Lincoln; David Strathairn, aristocratic and admiringly decent, is William Seward, who Lincoln defeated at the 1860 Republican Convention and then named Secretary of State (as did Lincoln name all the other rivals to his Cabinet!); Tommy Lee Jones is the congressional curmudgeon chair of Ways and Means, and a man who fought a lifetime for abolition (as you will understand better after you see the film); and others, young and old, who populate the complex human tapestry of this film.

Why does Lincoln never get dated? Why can his story be told again and again, and never seem to wear out its welcome? I think it has something to do with how visceral our needs are for equality -- equity in opportunity, justice and dignity. I think it has something to do with seeing one of our own, deeply human and without pretense or self-interest, honor what is noble and let no obstacle stand in the way. That he paid the ultimate sacrifice adds tears to his achievements. May our current president win his battles for equity without war or personal sacrifice, and lead us to a stronger union.

Dr. Sederer's book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, will be published by WW Norton in the spring of 2013.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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