On Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln begins with the President talking to a pair of black soldiers after a battle, one praising him for being such a swell President, the other insisting he do something about the inequality in pay between black and white servicemen.  The threesome is joined by a pair of white soldiers, one of whom compliments Lincoln on, and then begins to recite, his Gettysburg Address.  He trails off, forgetting the ending, but as the four soldiers turn to leave, the one who’d been berating him turns, looks Lincoln in the eye, and finishes the speech:

 It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Thus are the terms of the conflict we are about to watch set in motion.  Not a hagiographical biopic about a national saint, but a gritty, detailed look at the machinations required to turn rhetoric into action, and about the gulf that lies between the ideals we hold and express in words and the reality of what we are actually able to achieve in our debased, messy world.

The bulk of the film plays much like an extended, 19th Century-set episode of The West Wing (it’s got the same highly entertaining mix of political seriousness and fast-talking humor, though instead of the TV series’s famed “walk and talk” steadicam sequences, we get a lot of “sit and talks”), as Lincoln and his cabinet try, in January of 1865, to round up the necessary 20 Democratic votes to pass the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) in the House of Representatives.  The first section of the film is an expositional wonder, as not only are the main characters (including Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Republican poobah Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and various members of the White House-hold, among others) introduced and motivated, but the political issues involved are explained with a detail, clarity and respect for the audience’s intelligence that’s extremely rare in a Hollywood film.  All credit should go to playwright Tony Kushner’s screenplay, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fascinating and engrossing book Team of Rivals.  It’s as good if not better than anything I’ve seen from Kushner, and that’s saying a lot for the author of Angels in America.  Lincoln’s explanation of the complex tangle that is the suspect legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, and why it must be superseded by a Constitutional Amendment before the war ends is a wonder of relatable wonkery.  After this exposition, the film settles in as a classic race against time: the President’s men must get the necessary votes before a peace expedition from the South arrives in Washington to surrender.  If the South is willing to surrender, then no one but the most radical Republicans will vote for Abolition and slavery will continue, conceivably forever.  A trio of fixers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) is assigned to the task of persuading the Democrats (Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others) without bribing them, while Lincoln stays on the sidelines, coping with his home life (manic depressive wife Mary (Sally Field) and his two sons, the oldest of whom, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to enlist) while trying to keep the various factions within his own party and cabinet from undermining his efforts.

The heart of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln, which will very possibly win him a well-deserved third Academy Award.  Beyond the superficial elements (his resemblance to Lincoln, his remarkable voicework), Day-Lewis captures the heart of our most melancholy president, tall and gangly with a shuffling, stooped walk and the manner of someone who doesn’t quite seem to occupy the same space as those around him and yet has such an easy, disaffecting way with story and anecdote that he’s instantly relatable.  This Lincoln has a fascinating kind of tangentiality: his preferred mode of persuasion is telling a story, the meaning of which is often rather ambiguous.  When pressed to make his point more clearly, he manages to summon an anger and eloquence unseen by American audiences since Martin Sheen cursed God in Latin.  Day-Lewis captures the fire and the sadness in Lincoln, he presents him as a man almost destroyed by personal tragedy, an unrivaled national calamity and the unendurable burden of history, for he is fully aware that his is the most important job in the history of his nation, and that if he fails it will mean lifetimes of suffering for untold millions.  He is a man who is consciously prolonging a war for the sake of passing a piece of legislation, knowing as he tours the battlefields full of dead that they died because of his belief in the greater, future good.  The most remarkable thing about Lincoln is that he endured.

Which brings us back to words and actions.  The nature of politics is to lie in the gap between ideals and reality, and Lincoln dramatizes this like no film I know.  The plot of the film follows an attempt to actualize a part of the ideal enunciated at Gettysburg.  The film’s most fully-realized subplot revolves around Thaddeus Stevens, a thunderous opponent of slavery noted for his fiery speeches on the floor of the house and his unwillingness to compromise.  But in order for the Amendment to pass, Stevens must moderate his rhetoric so as to blunt the argument that abolishing slavery is merely the first step on the road to full racial equality.  Everyone knows that’s what Stevens believes, but if he says it in the debate, his side will lose necessary swing votes.  And so, in order to achieve his desired action, Stevens must stand mute and refuse to articulate his true beliefs.  How he threads this needle and outwits his interlocutor with an inspired burst of invective is one of the film’s many joyful turns.  Other subplots revolve around rhetoric as well: Lincoln’s attempt to persuade one representative culminating in said Congressman’s joyous cry on the House floor when he finally makes up his mind (a nifty little performance from Stuhlbarg); a semantical error a Democrat makes on the nature of the peace expedition that nearly undoes the whole project but for Lincoln’s lawyerly sophistry; even the final resolution between Lincoln and Mary, as she finally understands the enormity of the responsibility and grief he suffers under only because he had until then refused to articulate it in words, preferring to allow himself to be silently crushed under its weight for the good of the nation.

Ultimately, of course, the Amendment passes and the film might have ended there, ten weeks before the assassination.  But Spielberg isn’t quite finished: instead we jump to Lincoln’s last night where we see him leave the White House for the final time, receding into silhouette as his butler looks back at him like he’s had one of those movie premonitions that cause double takes.  The sequence has a cloyingness that the film for the most part avoids: for much of the film Spielberg restrains his natural schmaltziness in favor of a pared-down visual style to match the film’s dingy, drained, Eastwood-grey color palate.  When the assassination does come, we don’t see the action at Ford’s Theatre, rather we see Lincoln’s youngest son hearing the news at a different theatre across town (thus Spielberg manages needlessly to drag a child into a film that is otherwise entirely about adults, as he’s done in pretty much every one of his films for the last 30 years).  Why this should be is not entirely clear (surely there are far more interesting ways of dramatizing Lincoln’s last night, with its triple assassination attempts, and so on; at least they made a call on Stanton’s pronouncement after Lincoln’s death: he belongs to the ages, not the angels) but it does lead to an interesting postscript.

After Lincoln’s death, we cut to a scene set a few days earlier, the end of his Second Inaugural Address.  Paralleling the film’s open, we’re given a profound rhetorical statement which does not (yet, 150 years later) match our nation’s reality.  But now, we don’t have a Lincoln to struggle to actualize these beliefs on our behalf.  The film thus ends with an exhortation, a challenge.  It doesn’t have the volcanic fire of War Horse‘s final scene, a family reunion in the midst of a destroyed world.  Like in most of the rest of the film, Spielberg’s aesthetic showmanship is subordinated to the words. It’s just a man giving a speech to a crowd. . . unless it becomes something else.

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.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

13 thoughts on “On Lincoln

  1. Just got back from seeing Lincoln downtown. I wanted to catch the film before reading your very nice piece. It appears as though you and I agree quite a bit on the picture. As far as I'm concerned, it's the first great movie of 2012 that I have seen (these last five weeks better bring forth some viable contenders).

    I really appreciated Spielberg's restraint here. While I love me some treacle (I quite enjoyed last year's War Horse) this film would not have benefitted from it. And while he occasionally veers into a too-perfect close-up cued to a John Williams' orchestral swell, for the most part Spielberg lets Kushner's words course through the force of nature that is Daniel Day-Lewis. While he doesn't necessarily hide, Spielberg knows when to stay the heck out of the way. I thought his presentation of the assassination was keeping with this resolve. It was really well done and may have been the only truly surprising moment in the film. Spielberg is rarely a man for surprises.

    However, surprise means little when one is working with such a wealth of confident talent. I was riveted throughout the entire amendment vote sequence, knowing the outcome ahead of time meant nothing to my thrill. It was glorious filmmaking watching Spielberg cut between the House and the soldiers listening via telegraph, before finally resting on the President alone with his young son as the muted bells tolled triumphantly outside.

    It is stunning how consistently entertaining a film about securing votes for an amendment's passage can be. And remarkably funny! The quips delivered by Tommy Lee Jones, who retains that elegiac gravitas from No Country for Old Men while belittling the bigots across the aisle, and the brazen, blustery appearance of James Spader both manage to lighten the mood in a film that looks far more staid than it actually is.

    Jones's internal war between his lifelong idealism and the pragmatism necessary to secure passage of the amendment is by far the film's best secondary narrative thread. The Joseph Gordon-Levitt plot line was a bit undercooked in comparison and by extension the Mary Todd stuff was a tad superfluous. All in all though, Lincoln is an outstanding picture that warrants far more serious appraisal than I can muster up.

    In other words, it's pretty cool.


  2. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it too. Did you see Damsels in Distress? I think that, Moonrise Kingdom (which you'll of course hate), The Master and Margaret are the only American films released in our neck of the woods this year that I liked more.

    I've read some attempts to justify the prominence of the youngest son, Tad, in the film, especially focusing on his obsession with the photographic plates of slaves that I failed to mention, something about Lincoln's fatherliness and the nation being left to muddle along absent a father after his death, like so many Spielberg kids. That makes sense to me and explains the obliquity of the assassination sequence. By the end of the film at least, i's not about Lincoln anymore, it's about us.

    The JGL plot had the only moment of inappropriate aestheticization, I thought. In the scene where they go to the hospital and JGL sees the horrible pile of limbs, the shot is framed such that there's a lovely glint of sunlight overhead, peeking out from behind a building. Spielberg can't help making things look pretty, even when the point of the scene is the witnessing of unimaginable ugliness. It's an interesting tension in small doses, but it's also the contradiction that tears part Schindler's List. In Lincoln I think he manages to not so much “restrain” that impulse (though that was the word I used in the review, it is almost always a pretty movie, with lots of iconographic shots and great shafts of Spielberg light) as mute it with the drained color palate. The oranges and reds and blues that make Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun and War Horse so distinctive are almost completely absent in favor of white and black and shades of gray.


  3. Isn't Margaret a 2011 film?

    I haven't seen or heard much about Damsels in Distress. I'll add it to the list.

    While The Master is very good, I appreciate it from a distance. It was the first PTA film that didn't truly surprise me. It was territory we had gone down before in Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood which his latest film is a weird hybrid of. The Master is definitely a better film than something overwrought and bloated like Magnolia but in the end, I was left wanting.

    That's a great observation that Lincoln becomes less about the President and more about us. I picked up on that too and meant to mention something to that effect above. While Daniel Day-Lewis still owns every second of screen time he gets, by the last half we've got these other stories that we're following and the President seems almost peripheral to the proceedings. His presence is always felt but it becomes more of an issue of the people coming to see his vision than anything he really does to bring it about. He has set the contraption in motion and like the film's director, he has to sit back and watch the events unfold.

    To be honest, I hadn't really attached Tad's prominence to the Spielberg pre-occupation with fathers but it is so blindingly obvious now. No other director would have constructed it that way.

    Lindy by the way liked the film far less than I did. We rarely disagree much about films but she really cannot handle Spielberg's serious side. Give her a Jaws or Jurassic Park and she's happy as a clam, but the machinations and emotional manipulations in his more somber films irk her to no end. She thought DDL was phenomenal and saved the picture but she gives very little quarter to Spielberg's style. She thought there were too many artificial, emotionally-profound moments, like the exchange between Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley talking about the ramifications of freedom. I know exactly what she means and I don't actually disagree with her, but I find Spielberg's style unique and almost always masterfully achieved, even if it can be rather obvious. War Horse and Lincoln are movies that come exactly as advertised, but Spielberg consistently delivers.


  4. Yeah, Damsels and Margaret are both 2011, that's why I qualified it with “opened around here”. My top 2012 movies are festival titles: In Another Country & Like Someone in Love.

    The Master nags at me. It's just so fundamentally strange. A puzzle film with no solution and where nothing really happens, but it seems to contain multitudes.

    Interestingly, despite Lincoln's ultimately being left on the sidelines (alone with Tad in the White House) as the Amendment passes, they're only able to round up the votes once he finally takes an active role in the persuasion. He's essential, but ultimately we're left without him.

    I really liked the scene with Lincoln and Keckley. I thought it was a more nuanced, honest take on race relations than we've ever seen from a Lincoln film, acknowledging the utter gulf between the between black and white and the necessity of muddling though regardless.

    Did you like War Horse? I find it fascinating. So many lame parts, but ultimately such a weird, dark, and wild movie.


  5. Sean, enjoyed very much your insights and those of commenters here. Re the relentlessly pretty world of Spielberg's most violent scenes, I've always seen this as what we're capable of doing in a world of natural beauty — that despite the Light and any sense of wonder at what we have, we are so capable of finding reasons to maim and kill one another to support the dominance of our own not-always-chosen values (some are inherited and habitual).


  6. Well, of course the Amendment's passage hinges on those great personal meetings between Lincoln and the representatives, but as the movie shows it only worked half the time, literally a 50/50 shot. Lincoln definitely did his part, especially in the convincing of Michael Stuhlbarg's character, but the last third of the movie is so dominated by the vote itself and the now internalized war of the voters, with the President marginalized by his stature and position. That's when the film becomes more about the ramifications of the Amendment's passage and less about the man behind it. It's about what side of history these lesser men plan to be on. Lincoln's position has been steady the entire film, even when he is making back-up plans to potentially end the war. That's why Thaddeus's story is so interesting. He was a lifelong outspoken advocate for equal rights and had to go in the opposite direction of his values, at least publicly, to secure its passage.

    I thought the Keckley scene was fine. Lindy was more annoyed with the way Spielberg shot and directed it, with her saying her poetic, impassioned piece and then walking stoically into the house, leaving Lincoln standing alone in the night. It was a little too histrionic and contrived for her taste. I think it plays into your observations of Spielberg's insistence on beauty. The sequence is a little too perfectly conceived.

    Barring the scenes with the French girl and her grandfather, I really, really liked War Horse. I know you don't see the John Ford-ness everyone else was talking about, but the first third of the film, when the boy bonds with the horse (working the plow together, etc.) had an old Hollywood charm to it that is all but non-existent in pictures today. That section really reminded me of something like How Green Was My Valley. Meanwhile, the battle scenes were (again) beautifully composed and damn it, if I didn't cry like a baby at the climax with that fearful, strident equine running through the trenches.


  7. Thanks Andrys. You make a good point. My only qualm is that sometimes I think Spielberg leans a bit to far on the side of making violence and horrible things look too beautiful, rather than letting the ugly mar our otherwise pretty world.


  8. Lincoln standing alone after Keckley walks away is a bit reminiscent of John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, I think. You've seen that, right?

    I just don't see the Old Hollywood in that section of War Horse. It's pure Spielberg to me, or Ron Howard, definitely a creation of the post-Rocky world. The music, the comedy, the stubborn doggedness. It's the film's most Far and Away sequence.


  9. Yes, I have seen Young Mr. Lincoln and I love it. One of my favorite Ford pictures.

    To me, it is the warm dynamic between the family, including the horse, in their farm house that hearkens back to camaraderie of something like How Green Was My Valley or even The Searchers. What did you think of the overly precious French girl and her grandfather?

    Why is it your Spielberg posts always generate the most comments? You should do a Spielberg marathon to really generate some page views.


  10. It's one of my favorites as well.

    I try not to think about the French girl and her grandpa. It's the worst part of the movie by far. What holds back my appreciation of the film is my inability to think of a rationale for it. IF I could be persuaded it was important, I think I'd like the film a lot more. As it is, the most positive reviews I've read of the movie focus mostly on the last half.

    Don't know what it is about Spielberg posts. They're probably just the rare times I write about movies people have actually seen.


  11. Of course Day Lewis is far too handsome to be Lincoln.
    As he said “God must have loved plain looking people, he made so many of them”
    And he saw himself as far from omniscient: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”, a rather more elegant version of Macmillan's “Events, dear boy, events”


  12. Doris Kearns Goodwin said on Colbert that she's always thought Lincoln was sexy. I'm inclined to agree with her assessment. I did think DDL looked weirdly like ben Stiller at times, though.

    I think the film portrays a non-omniscient Lincoln, albeit one who is likely wiser (or at least more clever) and more forward-thinking than his contemporaries. He's the smartest guy in the room, but he manages to express, in his conversation with Elizabeth Keckley at least, that there are very real limits to his knowledge and experience.


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