Abe, Honestly: Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln'

Daniel Day-Lewis gives us the president we want in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. And Spielberg gives us the movie we expect. Positioned for Oscars and likely to get them, it’s a canonization fer sure, as Abe might say. Spielberg enjoys such an exalted stature in the public mind that he could not do anything less.

At the same time, the filmmakers bestow upon Lincoln a highly calibrated sanctity, one that acknowledges the politician behind the man behind the image behind the myth. Like the picture of Mr. Lewis in the ubiquitous print ads for the movie—think of a penny, held at a downward angle—the Lincoln of “Lincoln” is slightly askew.


The fractured humanity of Spielberg’s Lincoln—who is also the Lincoln of the screenwriter Tony Kushner and the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin—makes him endearing but also precludes the movie’s being dismissed as an American liberal whitewash of a problematic president. Lincoln had his issues. As Mr. Kushner told this writer, the 16th president came from a state that was institutionally hostile to blacks; he was personally acquainted with very few; he was genuinely surprised when he met one who could read and write. He was not entirely comfortable with the idea of racial equality.

But there is a sense throughout the film that Abraham Lincoln’s education parallels the nation’s. And this raises questions about the timing of the movie’s release. It is hard to miss the message one gets from “Lincoln” that a vote against Barack Obama is a vote against Abraham Lincoln. And yet the film was held back until three days after the election. (Spielberg’s response to questions about this have ranged from oblique to ridiculous.)

If one were being unkind, one would say that Mr. Spielberg, who is as in control of the marketing machinery surrounding his movies as any director alive, considers his film above mere presidential politics. If so, he should have informed his screenwriter. The incandescent Mr. Kushner (“Angels in America”), drawing largely from his fellow Pulitzer laureate Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, creates a Lincoln of contradictory parts and an iconic whole. A weary sainthood hangs on his shoulders like the shawl that the increasingly wraithlike Abe wears as he prowls the White House halls at night, worrying whether he can end slavery and war without one plan canceling out the other. In a very early scene involving a battlefield visit, shot over Lincoln’s shoulder, at first, to ease us into Lewis’s uncanny impersonation, several soldiers are given an audience with their president, including an educated black man from Massachusetts. He bemoans the slow pace at which the Army promotes African-American officers. At this rate, he says, black men might get the vote in, oh, 100 years. Not to think about President Obama at this moment is impossible.

Mr. Kushner’s screenplay is far more sophisticated than the film around it, which, per Mr. Spielberg’s usual M.O., relies on John Williams’s intrusive music, which goes so far as to emulate Gabriel’s trumpet and is always leading one’s heart by the hand (if that’s possible). Mr. Kushner’s intentions might be equally obvious, but the viewer doesn’t feel quite so manipulated. When Lincoln explains the intellectual gymnastics he had to perform in issuing an Emancipation Proclamation that usurps the states’ rights issue at the heart of the slavery question, it is lawyerly but thoroughly accessible and illuminates for the legally unschooled viewer (like this one) the knotty questions with which the president had to contend. Instead of Lincoln’s biography, it is the fight over the 13th Amendment, which is what really freed the slaves, that serves as the plotline of the movie, and its intrigues seem to exist only half in the past. In fact, when the Rahm Emanuel-like secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), assesses the odds of the amendment passing the House (“When have the Republicans ever been unanimous on anything?”), we are jerked back to the present as abruptly as if Mitt Romney suddenly showed up dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Speaking of whom: Playing a flying nun early in your career seems to make people take you less seriously than they might; and despite two Oscars for Best Actress, Sally Field is never mentioned in the same breath as, say, Meryl Streep. This may change. Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, usually dismissed as one of the premier loonies of American history (thanks largely to Gore Vidal) is given a complex, contoured portrayal by Ms. Field, who applies layers of character and conflict onto a first lady whose personal grief matched that of any soldier’s mother, North or South. In the film, as in fact, she is a woman of emotional volatility, which has caused her husband no small degree of anxiety. But she is also cultured, intellectual, educated and clever. When she dresses down her husband’s chief congressional ally, Thaddeus Stevens (a terrific Tommy Lee Jones), she does so with surgical sarcasm and brittle eloquence. She is also, in this one key scene, clearly a woman who is barely keeping it together, played by an actress who has it all together.

Then there’s Mr. Lewis, who, as many will agree, is the greatest actor currently making movies and has been such for quite a few years and in quite a few films: “The Boxer,” “The Crucible,” “Gangs of New York,” “In the Name of the Father.” While far too much emphasis is placed on the importance of the Academy Awards—which are, after all, industry awards given in an industry town—Mr. Lewis has won the Best Actor prize twice, for “My Left Foot” and “There Will Be Blood.” And if he wins for “Lincoln,” he will become the only actor ever to win three.

No one could be more deserving. While the movie around him is typical Spielberg—too much music, too much sentiment, too much movie—Mr. Lewis occupies its center like a pearl in a particularly untidy oyster. His Lincoln is gentle and fierce, philosophic and poetic, a crackerbarrel yarn-spinner and a ruthless manipulator. In fact, much of the pure fun to be had from “Lincoln” comes in watching the three shady operatives that Seward sends out, with Lincoln’s tacit approval, to buy votes. The trio (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) hilariously do their dirty business among the capital’s craven and soon-to-be-morally-compromised congressmen. And in this, we can look back on the Washington of Abraham Lincoln with a lofty, superior attitude: Our politics would never stoop so low or be so corrupt—not so transparently, at any rate.

At the same time, the questions of political courage that make “Lincoln” as much a suspense thriller as a biopic are not so easily answered now. The resolution of slavery called for independence of mind and allegiance to something other than party, conditions which seem at this point in our politics all but antediluvian. In very recent years, blocs of politicians have voted unanimously for matters far less important than the freedom of their fellow man, and likely will again. For all the excesses of the film, it seems that Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner, and perhaps Mr. Lewis too, recognize that “Lincoln” is not about evoking nostalgia or pride or heroism, but a longing for moral clarity. And it will, as long as we are the country Abe Lincoln thought we were.

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Christopher Rushlau
4 years 11 months ago
Let's be candid here and assign the fault where it belongs. If slavery is wrong, shouldn't God have equipped us with a culture-free conscience, maybe we could call it "natural law", which takes one glance at slavery and judges it a crime?
As for the film, let us rejoice that Mr. Spielberg got us through the election, and hopefully may I add to that the holiday season, without any references to Israel's constitutional arrangement. Let us say, "O, My God, quite frankly, I don't see what any of this has to do with Israel."
As for the substance of your remarks let me pass on from the absurdity of your 13th Amendment argument-do you really need, for example, a lawyer to tell you that "Jewish state" equals "anti-non-Jewish state" or are you content to believe that an absurd law is no law?
So now let me recommend Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln. When you read a biography, you should come away from it with a sense of having met in person-like you're meeting me now, if my writing is effective-the enigma behind the public actions. We are all enigmas, another term for "free", and the purpose of civil law, perhaps of the very idea of law ranging from divine law to custom, is to remind us to love each other in all our freedom. "I don't quite understand you but I love you" is grudgingly honest but is at best a poor way of saying, "because I love you, I accept that I don't entirely understand you: I concede you are neither a projection of my personality nor, therefore, a projection of my desire for social acceptance in what is evidently an unjust social order, and therefore I can expect, and even demand, that you accept me the same way." With that as the horizon of our hope in one another, we can easily grasp when, to paraphrase O.W. Holmes, someone is being kicked as opposed to being tripped over: even a dog can grasp that difference, Holmes said.
Vincent Gaitley
4 years 10 months ago

The movie was good, the actors great.  Spielberg's use of the score to knock your head about was truly annoying.  Shame there was such a Hollywood deception to get around the assassination scene, the film would have been better with its inclusion.  And that's just it, the film lacked some drama and in some parts was dull Confederate gray.  

Nicholas Clifford
4 years 10 months ago
Fascinating review of a fascinating movie (though I'd agree with Mr. Gaitley above that the assassination would have been better omitted). I wonder, though, whether the timing of the movie might have had less to do with the presidential campaign than with our dysfunctional Congress. Surely one of the main themes here is the need for a willingness to compromise. One of the chief protagonists is, after all, Thaddaeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Republicans, and a man not much interested in compromise. (I pick him out not only because I'm Pennsylvania born, and Vermonter by adoption, whereas in Stevens' case it was the other way round). My thoroughly idealistic granddaughter almost wept with disappointment when Stevens was forced by the party leaders to tell Congress (against his own beliefs) that Negroes should be equal to whites merely before the law, as opposed simply to being equal with whites, morally, intellectually, etc. Only in this way could the 13th amendment be passed in the face of Democratic (and conservative Republican) opposition.

Was Stevens right or wrong to make this compromise? It's one of the strengths of the movie, and presumably Kushner's script, that the question is not answered for us. We must come up with that answer ourselves.


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