James Michael Dorsey 7:40 p.m., Nov. 25
Why that ending?
Remember, this is supposed to be post-viewing chat. Spoilers abound.
The other day, Samuel L. Jackson expressed a thought that I suspect has been rattling around in a lot of heads: why didn't Lincoln end after his butler handed him his hat and he set off for the theater following the passage of the 13th amendment?
It was a perfect ending in some respects: his victory achieved, Lincoln tells his cabinet, "It seems I must go, though I would rather stay," which makes a fine allusion to his impending assassination. He receives his hat from his black butler, who gazes admiringly after him as he recedes from sight - he is passing into history, admired and revered by those Americans he helped to free from bondage.
True, the war is not yet over, but that part was Grant's job. Lincoln was a politician, and his political objective had been achieved. The story of the amendment's passage was the central story of the film, and it was over.
So what was director Steven Spielberg up to, dragging the film out the way he did?
Well, consider what happens next. Lincoln meets with the Southern delegation that he waylaid outside of Washington so that his amendment would get through before a peace offer could be made. The South realizes that it cannot stop the amendment, so they do not offer peace. The war continues. Lincoln visits a battlefield, gazes upon the vast array of corpses. Lincoln visits Grant, who notices that the President looks deeply shaken. Lincoln grants the point. Then the war ends, then we get a happy interlude with Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln. Only then do we get the assassination and the fade to the Second Inaugural.
Here's my take: the turning point of the film, it's dramatic highlight, comes when Lincoln changes his mind about the telegram being sent to the men bringing the Southern delegation and its offer of peace to Washington. Initially, he asks that they be brought to the city. Once there, they will offer their terms, and it is likely that the war will end. And if the war ends, we are told, the amendment is not likely to pass in the aftermath.
Lincoln discusses first principles with the telegram operators, ponders his place in history, and makes a fateful decision. He changes the telegram, and instructs the men to keep the Southern delegation outside the city until further notice. This becomes a crucial step in getting the amendment passed, because he is able to tell his opponents that there is no Southern delegation in Washington prior to the historic vote. Lincoln gets his win because he changed the telegram.
But you know what else happens because he changed the telegram? The war goes on longer than it would have if the Southerners had been allowed to come to Washington and make their peace offer. That battlefield Lincoln visits would never have received its rain of American blood. Lincoln prolonged the war to get slavery abolished, and men died because of his decision. That's the real story of Lincoln. That's why the film cannot end until we see that Lincoln sees the consequences of his decision.
"But wait!" you say. "Surely the voting scene on the amendment was the dramatic high point of Lincoln?" I don't think Spielberg thinks so, and I think he lets us know - quietly but certainly. Throughout the film, Lincoln discusses two things: the amendment and how to get votes for it, and preserving the lives of soldiers (his son foremost among them). But at the final hour, with two votes still to go, do we see the masterstroke moment of genius that allows the President to get those precious votes? No. We just see him demand that his people get those votes. And lo and behold, the next day, he gets them. It's a dramatic cheat - unless getting those votes isn't the point. Unless the point is what comes after: the death of American soldiers because Lincoln prolonged the war.
In the very final scene, what part of the Second Inaugural does Spielberg give us? This: "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" Lincoln is here expressing his willingness to prolong the war and shed additional blood in order to free the slaves. Though in the end, it is his judgment, not the Lord's, that he is asking us to affirm as true and righteous.
What say you all?
More like this:
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- An Unsettled Score — Dec. 29, 2005
- Friends with Duncan Hunter — May 27, 2004
- If Bush Can Lie, I Can Lie, Too — Feb. 19, 2004