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Film Review: Lincoln

Lincoln (2012; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

So much goes right in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it’s more than a little miraculous. The director mostly dampens down his legendary, sometimes movie-crippling sentimentality, at least until the end (a needless if compact exposition of the assassination), delivering a taut, no-nonsense portrait of moral principle as filtered through political procedure. Tony Kushner’s script, focusing on Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed and enshrine slavery’s abolition into the governing document of the United States, is a revelation, steeped in period dialect and constructed around the distinct styles of speech of its (many) characters while always keeping the faith with its central themes and metaphors. The performances are reverent and even priestly, and the photography shines through its accurate veneer of historically-accurate blemish like the stubborn twinkle of a well-employed prayer icon, with the lighting design in particular a holy marvel.

The surfeit of religious-tinged language may be forgiven, I hope, by the practical sanctity of the material. What has Abraham Lincoln become, in the national mythical imagination, but the American Christ? A secular martyr, sacrificing his own life so that the country might live, so that its copious sins (especially its greatest one, the institution of human property and forced labour) may be struck from the moral ledger. His peculiarities (and they were legion) are often lost in legend, his qualities as a man, a father, a thinker, even as a leader all smoothed down into a hagiographic philosopher-king image of a figure not so much of his time as above it, encapsulating but transcending the grasping, bitterly resentful political conflicts breaking out in all quarters around the fringes of the unspeakable slaughter of the Civil War battlefields.

Spielberg starts this portrait of Lincoln’s last months as President on one of those battlefields, a desperate greyscale of moisture and bloodshed, boots sinking into mud, bayonets biting into chests, soldiers drowning in overspilling puddles. More even than passing a slavery-banning measure in the frothing snakepit that is the House of Representatives, Lincoln’s overriding aim in the scope of the film is ending this destructive internecine conflict. But he will do it on his own terms, and those terms begin and end with a cessation of the moral horror of slavery, in support of which the Confederacy will fight tooth and nail (no “states’ rights” equivocating here; even the slippery Southerners and their Northern apologists don’t pretend that the war is about anything but the right to buy, sell, and own black slaves).

The legendarily Method thespian Daniel Day-Lewis tightly grips at Lincoln’s sense of his own fallibility, though he can’t help but invest the 16th President with the still, serene gravitas of a Midwestern monk. He argues with his emotionally-accusatory wife (Sally Field, who hasn’t been this good in three decades, if ever) who doggedly mourns their dead son and cannot countenance Abraham’s internalized grief (their Meyers-Briggs Personality Types are in definite opposition on this point). He butts heads with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an odd wig), who seeks to make his own way, out of his father’s shadow and in the Union army. And he gradually works up his nerve to dive into applying the requisite backroom pressure required to wheedle the necessary Aye votes for his beloved amendment in the divided House, with an ample assist from his austere but efficient Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and a trio of political operators Seward imports from Albany (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a wonderful, Falstaffian James Spader).

Day-Lewis physically approximates the Lincoln image familiar to Americans, a tall man who stoops with the weight of a splintered nation on his shoulders. His Lincoln is a keen listener who asks the opinion of telegraph operators and African-American corporals and frontier toll-keepers and values what they say as much as the learned views of his cabinet. But he will also talk and talk well; Lincoln can and does silent dissenters in the personal and executive spheres by elaborately laying out the well-considered, near-encyclopedic nuance of his thought-processes, but he also has a fantastic instinct for the well-placed story or anecdote. More than any of his other messianic features, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a seasoned teller of parables, to the point of occasionally frustrating his apostles.

Movies are fine and all, but I still wish I was back in Italy cobbling shoes.

Almost every cinematic aspect of Lincoln is worthy of nothing but firm praise (and I haven’t even found proper space to talk up the brilliance of Tommy Lee Jones, whose abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens broods stony-faced in between delicious verbal smackdowns). But as is laid out in thoughtful detail by Ta-Nehisi Coates, A.O. Scott and Kate Masur in their roundtable blog discussion of the film’s political ramifications, there’s a complexity to its view of slavery, the Civil War, the legislative process, and prejudiced institutional structures that does not always play to the credit of the film, of its subject, and of the historical record.

It seems to me that Kushner and Spielberg want to have Lincoln cut both ways. They want to unleash the grand, sweeping statements about the absolute imperative of human freedom, the comforting liberal monuments of civil rights and racial equality (or at least legal toleration, for a start). The inexorable march of progress that animated practically every Hollywood prestige movie not conceived by Clint Eastwood is paramount to Lincoln. As is usually the case, it is also depicted as a paternalistic struggle carried out wholly by white magnamity on behalf of powerless but noble African-Americans (although much of the liberal wind is let out of that particular balloon at dagger-like mentions of planned Reconstruction). As Scott points out in the linked discussion above, the unsentimental refusal to tolerate Lost Cause mythologizing with anything close to serious consideration is not only to the film’s great credit, but rather revolutionary in the annals of Hollywood’s approach to the Civil War; as Masur counter-points, it is not nearly so laudable or innovative in the context of civil rights message films.

But the filmmakers also want to show that it’s a twisting road to justice, and that Lincoln had to leave the door open to considerable compromises (the pinnacle of which, in Lincoln, is the possibility of negotiating a peaceful settlement to hostilities with Confederate representatives who want nothing more than to preserve the plantation system that the President seeks to abolish). There’s an implied dismissal of the principled radicalism of the Thaddeus Stevens-led abolitionist wing of the then-fledgling Republican Party (how the tables can turn in a century and a half in politics: the party of the anti-slavery Union in the Civil War era has become the party of the cultural Confederacy of the contemporary South). Compromise gets things done, Kushner and Spielberg tell us, and the absolutism of abolitionism was no more useful in seeking a solution than that of the slave-holders defending their white-supremacist order. There’s more than a hint of current affairs applicability to this message, coming as it is during the Obama Administration’s constant push for tough compromises with loftier goals in mind. Obama’s explicit and implicit similarities to Lincoln are always at the forefront of historical considerations, and the current President does not mind encouraging associations with the Illinois lawyer predecessor he greatly admires (for whatever admiration is worth; George W. Bush admired Lincoln too, and look where that got America).

Yet, of course, the abolitionists were right, and we live in the society they envisioned (indeed, well beyond it). Kushner will wring a knowing laugh from the audience at a slippery-slope argument by a vacillating Representative during the House debate, who fears that ending slavery will lead to the black vote and even (horror of horrors) the female vote. But then he will brush aside the moral clarity of those who wished slavery smashed absolutely as naive and even counter-productive.

The key to Lincoln on this point is arrived at by Masur, however: “the compromises that Lincoln did not make are more significant than the ones he did.” And the compromises, intellectual and artistic, that Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis and their team did not make in Lincoln are more significant than the ones they did. Lincoln emerges as a tempered masterpiece, worthy of the similarly qualified triumph it seeks to portray.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

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