No special occasion here, just a re-watch for a course, and because I haven’t updated the site in a few weeks.
The potential for a movie about Abraham Lincoln to choke on the congestion of history is undeniable, doubly so with Steven Spielberg at the helm. A master craftsman when he lets himself be, he is also perhaps the paradigmatic cinematic gawker, a director most susceptible to basking in the hallowed glory of his chosen object of study. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing in Lincoln, and he was always going to be. But the powerhouse performance that scrapes the impacted dust of history and breathes hypothetical life onto the screen is as old a cinematic genre as any other. More often than not, the presence of such an actor in such a role is little more than an excuse for the film to go on autopilot, gravely coasting through a figure’s events without perspective, viewpoint, or even a constellation of serious concerns. With Day-Lewis in the titular role, it’s really no surprise that the greatest pleasure of Spielberg’s film is watching one of the world’s best actors do his stuff with one of the most glorified (and consequently least humanized) figures in US history. But that a Spielberg version of Abraham Lincoln’s life would have anything else to offer beyond aggrandizing bromides was always in doubt.
Lo and behold, then: Lincoln is a shrewd, sharp motion picture, pungent and prodding, a quietly exasperated vision of the political process as somewhere between moral meat-grinder and moral compass, a vision galvanized by Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance but not colonized by his work. Quite like the event it depicts, the film is an amalgam of individual volition and social structuration, of personal courage and destabilizing political wrangling, and quite like its titular figure, the charisma of its storytelling is quietly spellbinding but also pointedly wry and even occasionally destabilizing.
Admittedly, Lincoln’s perspectival limits should not be dismissed: its vision of the necessity of hierarchical government is all too apparent, as is its fetish for the federal political process, which inevitably means that the figures it affords subjecthood are limited by color and, for the most part, gender. The only major black characters are servants, and one soldier who tries to puncture Lincoln’s avuncular bemusement, in the introductory scene, only to back off reciting the Gettysburg address. In doing so, the soldier metaphorically announces himself as part of the American polity to Lincoln by emphasizing respectable diligence rather than more forcefully pushing for immediate change; he rescinds the opportunity to question Lincoln further. Whether this refusal and its attendant acquiescence is, in fact, pushing Lincoln (through emphasizing black “respectability”) or simply basking in Lincoln’s glow is a question mark. The US has a long history of elevating African-American rhetorical claims to be included in the mainstream polity only to minimize actual efforts to redress social inequalities, not to mention only providing a stage for African-American voices provided they speak only on terms preferable to those in power, laundering their dissonance in terms of respect. Appreciation for critiques that are couched in a more fundamental regard for the system often veil other claims which propose more radical alternatives to the US as it exists, cloaking those claims which demand not participation in the system but transformation of it.
It’s clearly political rather than social history: the revolting slaves who acutely pressed on the political standstill in Washington DC are nowhere to be found. The film relies entirely on abstract intimations of a wider society and reducing Lincoln’s commitment to the 13th amendment that freed the slaves to a question of personal fire, not of social conflagration or the mass combustion of slave strikes and free black petitions that kindled the Radical Republicans of Washington into a blaze. Blaze in other ways, though, Lincoln does, and its steady, sure-handed interventions into the biopic form should not be dismissed, nor should its ability to treat dialogue not as glorifying sepulcher but as active mine-field. More of an inductive sketch than a broad-strokes portrait, Tony Kushner’s screenplay characterizes in motion, embodying the pragmatic spirit, both cinematic and political, of learning by doing first and foremost. Rather than a dogged trudge through events in Lincoln’s life carefully earmarked as “meaningful”, we’re thrown into the fire, forced to reckon with the push-pull of a chaotic democratic process that Lincoln so desperately wishes to prove is anything but “chaos”.
Lincoln is being marketed as a biopic, but that’s more an advertiser’s ruse. The entirety of the action takes place over a few months at the beginning of 1865, and the film centers specifically on Lincoln’s fight in Congress to pass the 13th amendment, which would lead to the formal abolition of slavery throughout the entirety of the United States. (The Emancipation Proclamation two years beforehand only tenuously emancipated slaves in the Confederacy, and then only as a utilitarian military gesture meant to reunify the states, not a moral statement dedicated to transforming the spirit of the country). The majority of the action takes place in January 1865, in the death throes of the war, when Lincoln sees an opportunity to use the absence of the Southern states from Congress to end slavery through federal legislative means. However, the bill soon meets with fierce opposition from pro-slavery Democrats, as well as more conservative faction of the Republicans, who support the end of slavery only provided it might hasten the end of the war. The latter remain skeptical of what they perceive as Radical Republican totalitarianism: the Radical Republicans’ will to press for comparatively rapid wide-scale social transformation in the name of equality. (It bears mentioning that the Republican Party of the 1860s was the progressive party; the Democrats were the states-rights conservatives fetishizing personal liberty without any qualms about who those liberties were reserved for (white men) or any hesitance about whether those liberties condoned slavery).
In turn, Lincoln has to reach deep into his mighty top hat of tricks, many of which were considered questionable then and much of which would be considered tyrannical today. He needs twenty Democrats to support the bill, no Republican abstentions or votes against, and he needs to hold off the very real possibility that the Confederates, deathly aware that their war effort was nearing its demise even as they feign masculine virtue, personal gentility, and steadfast ambition, want a peace treaty, under which slavery would likely be sanctioned. Since the end of the war means that his bill would almost certainly not pass, Lincoln tackles seemingly insurmountable odds with his own not inconsiderable political knowhow. The decision to confine the action to such a short period is the film’s first masterstroke, eschewing the unwieldy task of condensing an entire lifetime into two or so hours. Rather than a stodgy, uptight funeral reveling in the pleasantries of middle-brow throat-clearing, Lincoln is a snake-pit, one that tells us verbatim that it hopes that “democracy isn’t chaos” even as it continually and fascinatingly frustrates overly-ordered readings of the congressional progress. Chillier than anything Spielberg has ever directed and certainly less grandstanding than his previous foray into US history, Amistad, Lincoln is a vision of process as a paradoxical amalgam of bet-hedging and prophetic leaping, of the here-and-now and the impossible future, of moving forward without losing sight of the moment.
Above all though, Lincoln is an intimate portrait of a man that is clearly aware that what he is doing is hardly merely intimate, but that its effects will resonate with the intimacies of men and women, slaves and freed blacks, who he himself has no real knowledge of. In a phenomenally deflationary scene, the film’s best and a moment that anticipates American pragmatism’s emphasis on the unknown implicit in all democratic activity, Abraham Lincoln is asked by one of his servants, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), what he thinks of her. Attending to the veiled nature of individual life, Lincoln’s response is not to emphasize her personal worth or any politics of individual triumphalism or black respectability (that she is an exemplar of her race). Rather, he informs her that doesn’t “know her” at all, and that his personal opinion of her cannot and should not be the basis for her “right to expect what he expects”. Attending to the inertia of the mind, the film suggests that Lincoln, like most white men, probably didn’t believe in racial equality on principle. However, he was increasingly tortured by the limits of a national system structured to disinvest him of the possibility of finding out what existed on the other side of what W.E.B Du Bois would call the racial veil. When Lincoln implicitly asks her what will happen to “her people” once slavery is freed, she reminds him (implicitly) that such a thing was never asked of white people, and that freedom from slavery ought be a basic right unattended by and unalloyed to any “demand” by or for the nation.
Lincoln, in other words, was not always a man sure of his convictions, but his adaptability, his democratic impulse to listen and learn, was one of his greatest features, a cornerstone of his paradoxically divine realism, his conjunction of the pragmatist and the seer. His eyes were torn between (and tortured by) the clarion call of the future and the need to wrangle with the present, between having to wrestle with the shifting sand of his moment and to remain committed to idealistic principles. This is theorized by Lincoln explicitly via a geographic metaphor when he meets leader of the Radical Republicans, inveterate egalitarian Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), in the latter’s office. This seeming paradox also resonates with the apparent tensions in Lincoln’s persona that have caused so much consternation for historians over the years, consistently unable to agree on the contours of Lincoln’s moral vision over the years. In Kushner’s screenplay, Lincoln emerges as a prophetic skeptic, one simultaneously aware of, tortured by, and working-with the system’s rigidity and its malleability.
In service of his goal, the film explores Lincoln’s will to stretch the strict confines of the Constitution, to think of himself and the nation as intrepid wanderers into the unknown, a man and nation gifted with and troubled by an unruly but ultimately elastic system. Uniquely among modern political films, Lincoln views the titular figure’s bending of the law uncynically, refusing to exist above the action in some abstraction of a moral high-ground from which it can hurl invective at the characters for cutting backroom deals. The president folds prophecy into pragmatism, both certain and uncertain about both the ultimate vision and the immediate trajectory, and the film ultimately emphasizes with the violence he has to do to the letter of the law in search of discovering whether or not the spirit of the law is really worth saving in the first place. This Lincoln comes off as a gentle grandfather in the film when in public, but this belies a deeper, darker core of personal obsession and weariness, a soul-sick man wounded by the knowledge the system’s unruliness may also be its greatest virtue.
And of course, the lion’s share of the work toward this aim (no surprise to anyone) is done by one of the Western world’s finest working actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, smitten here as always with absolutely destroying our mental conception of the line between performance and life. The film benefits from a fine ensemble cast (Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn, the latter as Secret of State William Seward, are particularly memorable). But when Day-Lewis is on the screen, our eyes attract to him like moths to a lantern. He’s magnetic, his charismatic cadence and reedy tone of voice suggesting a tortured interweaving of countrified humility, personal fragility, and suggestive hubris, as though he’s manufacturing a vision of himself as an everyman whose weaknesses are his strengths. It’s a truly embodied portrait, one that intimates grave reservoirs of truth about a man who exists in a world, not simply a figurehead marshaled to resolve the contortions of a plot and bring a conflict to a consensus. Although his dialogue delivery and facial expressions are incomparable, his greatest achievement by a country mile is the hunchback gait he walks with, as though Lincoln is eternally burdened by the weight of a country looking to him for support. At times, he appears less like a man than a zombie.
Albeit one whose understanding of his own self-image is never fully apparent, much to the film’s fascination. At one point, Lincoln claims that the US is currently positioned on the world stage, and the statement clearly refracts back onto Lincoln the individual. Self-reflexively aware that all people can’t be reduced to private whims beneath a public veneer (which is to say, that public persona is part of the person) and that all cinema fabricates as much as it reveals, Lincoln doesn’t only scrape off the collected dust of history in hopes of uncloaking Lincoln “the man”. Rather, the film offers Lincoln the political calculator cultivating his own myth in motion, thinking through his countrified exterior both as an essence of the man and a tool for crafting his public image. This is absolutely the film having its cake and eating it too – the film gives us Lincoln the man and acknowledges we can never truly know Lincoln the man for that man was so defined by his public persona and indeed spent so much time trying to define that public persona that any sense of personal life outside of it might have been completely stricken from him. But the effect of this dissonance borders on devastating, a fracturing of the myth of Lincoln by acknowledging that myth-making is part and parcel not only with politics but the interpersonal battleground of society. Don’t get me wrong – this is no Che, to name a recent radical bio-pic auto-critique which explores a man who seems to consciously evacuate his personal, intimate self in favor of becoming a political icon for a movement – but it’s a somewhat strenuous critique of bio-pics which propose to unveil “truth” and, in doing so, neglect to mention that the boundaries between the veiled and unveiled are not quite so tight.
It must be mentioned that this is all intensely self-reflexive for noted method actor Day-Lewis, so famous for literally living his roles while filming. Perhaps never more-so than in Lincoln, the actor lives the performance by playing a performer who thrives and struggles in the interpersonal theater of politics. That’s a pointed meta-critical filigree, but the more immediate pleasures of Lincoln are more purely classical. Indeed, Lincoln offers a particularly textured example of how a film might resurrect Old Hollywood craft in the present day without subjecting it to an alienating and occasionally cloying layer of post-modern reflexivity.
And Spielberg’s craft is textured here, more-so than in any film of the current century. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still a classical composure to the production. Even the most elegant formal gestures – a terrifically wry match-cut from a backdoor Republican agent shambolically cracking open a crab with a mallet to the Speaker of the House demanding order in Congress with his gavel, tying off-stage political trickery with the ostensibly more regal on-stage activity of the legislature – aren’t so narratively disruptive that they wouldn’t fit into, say, a John Ford film. But the camera is abnormally introspective by the standards of the great blockbuster director. Spielberg doesn’t look at Lincoln as a child obsessed with his hero but as a steely-eyed film-maker who understands the complications of humanity. He does not, above all, sermonize about Lincoln’s features, nor is he particularly interested in ascribing any of the more conventional features of hero-dom to him, nor do we sense that he feels the need to make the case again for a man who has been lauded perhaps more than any figure in US history. There are a few vestiges of staginess here and there, but Spielberg uses them not with a straight-face but as a reflection on how we’ve come to understand Lincoln only through manufactured drama. At its wiliest, the film not only peels back the layers of this drama but argues Lincoln was the one doing the manufacturing.