Spielberg’s historical epic Lincoln is a tear-jerker - well, it extracted tears from me. But while critics have rightly raved about the acting and the daringly (for Hollywood) complex screenplay, no one seems to have pointed out the film’s real importance: its message about the value of a legalistic mind.
Honest Abe’s skills in that direction come over in two key scenes.
In one, the president has to justify his insistence on pressing for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery at the cost of extending the civil war. In a folksy monologue - ‘and here’s where it gets real slippery’ - he predicts to his inner circle the legal challenges that would inevitably face his emergency 1862 proclamation of emancipation.
Did it amount to a recognition that slaves were property? That the Confederacy was a lawful foreign power? And by what right did the president make his proclamation anyway? Slippery stuff, indeed.
In the second key scene, it’s January 1865: the day of the knife-edge House of Representatives vote on what will become the 13th amendment. Opponents of the measure have got wind that the president has secretly opened talks with emissaries from the south. With a wing of his own party wavering, Lincoln has to formulate a note denying that peace is imminent. In essence, to lie.
The legalistic phraseology with which he pulls it off is the reason we’re all supposed to despise lawyers and politicians. Spielberg’s genius is to present the slipperiest lawyers and politicians unequivocally as the good guys. It’s an interesting concept for our times. If you haven’t seen Lincoln, I’d strongly recommend it.
Invite your friends, too - especially the ones who hate lawyers.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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