There's a lot of good writing in Steven Spielberg's version of Lincoln, thanks to a phenomenal script by Tony Kushner (it still irks me that he lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Quentin Tarantino's messy Django Unchained script, but that's movie politics). Words are important in it, more so than most other screenplays. You're dealing with period language. You have to go back in time and lose a lot of history and industrial vocabulary. This one and and 2013's 12 Years a Slave had a good ear for arcane language and the expression of it. Good period writing is its own time machine, letting you listen in on the conversations of the past, knowing it is the past, by the carbon-14 of its language, that has not yet been drained of its color, its edge burnished, its vibrancy dimmed, by time and misuse.
Here, the screenplay finds Lincoln in the act of composing a telegram. He's written down what he wants to say, the particulars involving transportation of a delegation from the Southern states to negotiate a peace agreement to the Civil War. But, the details are messy. Lincoln is fighting two fronts, one on the battlefield and one in the legislature. He wants to pass a bill outlawing slavery before the end of the war, in order to have the status of former slaves in place before its end, and that is a slow process in the halls of Congress, where compromise and obstructionist idealism (or what passes for it) keep pushing the realization of it further off. Meanwhile, the war goes on, tirelessly chewing through the nation's populace, doing double damage, because both sides of the fight involve Americans. To delay the peace means more of "us" die. To end the war...now...means only persons of a certain pigment are free.
What would Lincoln do?
He'll go back to the words. Our sacred texts. And focus on one hyphenate embedded there: "self-evident." As in "we hold these truths to be..." Thomas Jefferson's use of the word hearkens back to Euclid's Elements, and the very basis for geometry and all the "given's" that we take for granted in all those proofs. If it works in math, it works for the world, and "equals" means the same: 1=1. That's a "given." That's "self-evident." Just like "all men are created equal."
We're created equal. But that's where it stops. After that, fate, charity and happenstance determines what we are: free man, slave, or property. Governance and economy decides our worth, and unequally. But, if that's true, "a nation conceived in liberty" will be stillborn in the throes of slavery.
And so the war goes on while men and women are slaves. He'll amend that telegram to delay the peace negotiators until men and women are not, and it is safe to end the war...for all Americans.
Or all of them that are left.
He touches the shoulders of his two adjutants...and leaves, after those dictated words...so paltry and so innocent, but with the deadliest of intent ...frees some and kills others. But that's the thing about war.
You don't win it. Never completely. Not if you do the math.
The Set-Up: Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is this close to passing the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in the House of Representatives. But petty squabbling in the House and his own Cabinet is keeping that from being accomplished. Most House Republicans, especially the fiery abolitionists led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) will water down their positions in order for it to pass, but the Democratic minority will not budge, especially if it can bring a speedy end to the Civil War by negotiating a settlement, and abolishing slavery would make that negotiation dead before starting. A secret negotiating team is heading for Washington now, and Lincoln does not want that knowledge watering down the urgency for abolition. Before dawn, he goes to the war-room telegraph office to send an urgent message to his Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant. He has one more tactic that he can pull...as he ever does...from his hat.
INT. THE TELEGRAPH ROOM, WAR DEPARTMENT - PRE-DAWN
Lincoln is seated at Eckert's desk, shawl wrapped around his shoulders, glasses on; he stares down into his hat, held between his knees. Homer Bates and Sam Beckwith are waiting for him. Lincoln draws a handwritten note from his hat and carefully unfolds it.
LINCOLN "Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, City Point. I have read your words with interest."
Sam Beckwith transcribes Lincoln's words into code on a pad with a pencil.
LINCOLN (CONT'D) "I ask that, regardless of any action I take in the matter of the visit of the Richmond commissioners, you maintain among your troops military preparedness for battle, as you have done until now."
He stops for a moment. Beckwith waits, pencil poised. Lincoln looks at the note, folds it, tucks it in a band inside his hat. 75.
LINCOLN (CONT'D) "Have Captain Saunders convey the commissioners to me here in Washington."
And the date.
SAMUEL BECKWITH (WHILE WRITING:) Yes sir.
Lincoln places the hat on the floor.
SAMUEL BECKWITH (CONT'D) Shall I transmit, sir?
LINCOLN (a beat, then:) You think we choose to be born?
SAMUEL BECKWITH I don't suppose so.
LINCOLN Are we fitted to the times we're...
SAMUEL BECKWITH I don't know about myself.
You may be, sir. Fitted.
LINCOLN (TO HOMER:) What do you reckon?
HOMER BATES I'm an engineer.
I reckon there's...
... machinery but no one's done the fitting.
LINCOLN You're an engineer, you must know Euclid's axioms and common notions.
HOMER BATES I must've in school, but...
LINCOLN I never had much of schooling, but I read Euclid, in an old book I borrowed.
Little enough ever found its way in here - (touching his cranium) - but once learnt it stayed learnt.
Euclid's first common notion is this: "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other."
Homer doesn't get it; neither does Sam.
LINCOLN (CONT'D) That's a rule of mathematical reasoning. It's true because it works; has done and always will do.
In his book, Euclid says this is "self-evident."
it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.
We begin with equality. That's the origin, isn't it? That balance, that's fairness,
He looks at his scribbled note, then at Sam and Homer.
LINCOLN (CONT'D) Read me the last sentence of my telegram.
SAMUEL BECKWITH "Have Captain Saunders convey the commissioners to me here in Washington."
LINCOLN A slight emendation, Sam, if you would.
Beckwith writes as Lincoln dictates.
LINCOLN (CONT'D) "Have Captain Saunders convey the gentlemen aboard the River Queen..."
... as far as Hampton Roads, Virginia,"
...and there wait until..."
LINCOLN "...further advice from me."
Do not proceed to Washington."
Words by Tony Kushner
Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg
Lincoln is available on DVD and Blue Ray from Touchstone Home Video.