But a year ago or so I stood at a spot where a gang of pro-slavery thugs murdered free-staters, a place in eastern Kansas called Mairais des Cygnes, a place I'd never have heard of if it hadn't appeared on a highway sign. In fact, I don't know that I'd have known much at all about "Bleeding Kansas" if we hadn't stopped at the site. Nor would I have known that in the years before the Civil War men and women from both sides were killed in Kansas, many in cold blood.
I love history. It's us, finally--just an older chapter of the same old human book. No one goes to war about slavery anymore in America, but slug fests between the forces of justice and freedom still take place most every year; and when they do, it doesn't hurt us to review where we've been and why, especially when the reviews are done so poignantly.
Last night, I saw Lincoln, Stephen Spielburg's absolute masterpiece. The acting is beyond description really--Daniel Day-Lewis, I'd hazard to say, was born to play the tall, gaunt folksy yarn-spinner who led the tattered union through its bloodiest era. When you have to remind yourself that the man you see before you isn't the man he's playing, when acting isn't acting, you're beyond excellence, as is Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln.
Sally Fields has had major roles in her career, but nothing like Mary Todd Lincoln. In my mind, the President's wife was a madwoman, a horribly dark drag on the buoyant psyche of the sainted Lincoln. Fields's portrayal has intense and exhausting moments, but whatever weaknesses she may have had are given a foundation in character and experience that makes her every notion understandable. It's the amplitude of her characterization that makes the President's wife into something much greater than the character I thought I knew.
Familiar faces appear as if out of nowhere in Spielberg's Lincoln, almost as if Hollywood's finest all wanted a part of this--and they likely did. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery abolitionist who has to swallow the bitter bile of his own passionate politics to secure the votes for the 13th amendment. He is incredible.
One of the most memorable moments in the film occurs after Stevens walks home from Congress, the vote to outlaw slavery now behind him. He walks through his front door, greets his African-American housekeeper, and gives her the tally sheet, a present, he tells her. In the very next scene, the two of them--two old folks--lie side by side in bed, immensely happy. Maybe it's just me, but that particular moment is what the story is all about--in a word or two, love not hate.
Stephen Spielberg has given America a gift, a story to treasure. Somewhere along the line every American schoolchild learns that there is an amendment to the constitution forbidding slavery, and that once upon a time, hard as it is to believe, slavery was an institutional part of American life. Every kid alive in this country learns that once upon a time there was a great Civil War, testing whether our nation, in Lincoln's own words, "could long endure."
But few of us really understand the battle over abolition as it was conducted in the halls of Congress in 1865, the issues, the pressures, the decided opinions on the nature of government and life in these United States. What Spielberg has done here is tell that story richly, hugely, powerfully, so that we come to understand much of what, in many cases, we white folks would rather not remember at all.
All the great lessons of history teach humility, as does this one.
Spielberg's gift in Lincoln is something akin to what Lincoln himself did when he consecrated the holy ground at Gettysburg--he gave us a way to tell our story. Spielberg isn't Lincoln, but in his new film about the end of the war and the end of slavery in America, he's given us a story to know and remember, a real gift.
It's difficult not to empty the superlative drawer when talking about Lincoln. It's that great. We should be thanking him as a nation. He's told us, in powerful ways, a part of our own story that we will not forget easily.
We went last night, on Thanksgiving, early evening. Listen to this: the place was jammed. That fact alone is sufficient fodder for my own morning thanks.
Don't miss Lincoln.