How Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ parlays the ‘great man’ notions of history
“You begin your second term with semi-divine status,” the 16th president of the United States is told in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. The evidence of that status is in the film’s mythifying visual style that presents Abraham Lincoln as an icon—silhouetted, spectral, sculptural. The people around him, such as the white and “negro” Union soldiers relating their Civil War experiences of the 1865 Jenkins Ferry massacre during the film’s introduction, are also made into myth. (These weary men have already committed the Gettysburg Address to memory—a presentiment of the schoolboy’s homework in Minority Report.) Spielberg’s concern with “the right side of history” turns the film into cult-of-personality deification; it’s on the side of power, which makes it one of the weirdest pieces of supposedly democratic Americana ever to come out of Hollywood.
The story in Lincoln dramatizes the president’s efforts to install a 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolishes slavery. His struggle is more than politically correct; it is presumed indisputably correct, which takes the movie outside of history; outside of dramatic immediacy. Watching Lincoln is very much like observing a flesh-and-blood diorama. Everything is soon settled (within 2 and a half hours); there’s no emotional suspense.
The trick Spielberg needed to pull off was to make the characters’ moral choices dramatically compelling; analyzing ethics in politics (those pragmatic procedures that deemed the Emancipation Proclamation “a military exigent”). Yet that’s where the film becomes dodgy—open to accusations of merely being a civics lesson, or worse: Spielberg’s equivalent to Richard Attenborough’s stillborn hagiography Gandhi, rather than a companion-piece to his thrilling, brilliantly analytical masterpiece Amistad.
In Amistad, Spielberg cannily transformed the issue of slavery into the intricacy of law; human endeavor and spiritual struggle were historically modified into argument and principle. The Amistad characters Cinque the African (Djimon Hounsou) and John Adams the political forebear (Anthony Hopkins) grappled with the fact of slavery. This time slavery is anthropomorphized. The introduction’s two docile and truculent black soldiers patronizingly prophesize modern attitudes; Lincoln himself (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) describes slavery as a “disease,” which distances it into abstraction. Lincoln attempts to dramatize mere rhetoric. Despite high-flown language, it turns the experience of human lives into platitudes and homilies.
For a lesser filmmaker, the prevarications in Lincoln would be disastrous. But Spielberg’s innate filmmaking resources consistently provide rhythmed imagery: Conventional—as when Lincoln’s aides race to get his disingenuous communiqué. Daring—as when Lincoln dreams his forthcoming struggle as an eerie ship voyage. The film is always something to look at. Congressional arguments are composed to show the vitality of faces and individuals—the elite body politic—like period versions of Francesco Rosi’s courtroom scenes in Hands Across the City and Salvatore Giuliano yet without Rosi’s worry about the masses’ corruption. Spielberg’s vibrant style just barely offsets the mundanity of parliamentary argument. The fact that Lincoln’s drama comes from predictable dialectic, rather than an in-the-moment philosophical conundrum like Amistad, reveals its insufficiency. Lincoln tilts toward magniloquence, using important-sounding words and an exaggeratedly solemn and dignified style.
Spielberg shrewdly chose the histrionic Day-Lewis to impersonate Lincoln with twinkling eyes and a wily, high-pitched voice that humanize the icon. Day-Lewis’ long face is given built-in hollows and shadows that match the Lincoln Memorial and postage stamp figures while also suggesting mysterious depths. His every close-up suggests historical reverence. But this contrasts the fascinating mortal portrayals by Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, who act through their flesh, courtesy of Janusz Kaminski’s portraitist lighting that suggests the grain of historical painting yet animated by fluid camerawork. At one point (“It’s too hard”), Field’s transition from agony to aggrieved diplomacy is as much the director’s triumph as the actress’. Spader’s grungy agitator feels lived-in, while Jones enlivens a cliché congressional hack—his toupeed role reaches back to a key idiosyncratic characterization in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
With Lincoln, Spielberg assumes his place in the descent of American cinematic mythmakers following Griffith and John Ford—a fact already evident, and earned, in Amistad. Here it’s a self-conscious effort. Not because it’s impossible to portray Abraham Lincoln any way other than worshipfully but because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (adapting a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin) try fitting Lincoln into a contemporary political paradigm.
Without clarifying the intricacy of the 19th century Republican party and the different principles of early Democrats, Spielberg and Kushner claim Lincoln as their model autocrat—always the smartest man in the room—which becomes a form of adoration. Stevens even refers to Lincoln as “the purest man in America.” Distinct from the cultural myth in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln that was widely shared in less jaded times, Lincoln presents a new-style giant—a storyteller of superhuman probity and only fleeting moments of the most admirable self-doubt—probably influenced by the current hunger for a great leader whose outstanding talents must be prefabricated or whose failings go ignored in order to answer a desperate contemporary need for power.
Here’s how Lincoln prevaricates: Scenes with black characters show flawless nobility and strength—whether as a silent, pious gospel chorus entering the Senate chamber or unimpeachably dignified servants. Scenes with white politicians, meanwhile, focus on issues with little motivation beyond hectoring opposition. These convenient and very modern political defects prevent Lincoln from achieving the historical reach of Amistad or the miraculous suasion that made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s change-of-heart scene so moving.
When Lincoln proclaims, “We’re stepped out upon the world’s stage now; the fate of human dignity is in our hands. Blood’s been spent to afford us this moment. Now! Now! Now!” the stage metaphor exposes playwright Kushner’s smugness. Lincoln is rife with Kushner’s pedantic tendency. Speechifying characters (especially Lincoln) display conceited literacy, over-arguing their differences (their career positions) but never embodying the passions that made Michael Apted’s Wilberforce biography Amazing Grace such a remarkable drama of moral inspiration. Kushner’s self-congratulatory approach to the 13th Amendment doesn’t enliven our sense of personal conviction and political maneuvering. Even the powerful “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” trading song in 1776, the Declaration of Independence musical, more clearly outlined American political manipulation. Both Amazing Grace and 1776 worked as ideational histories; Lincoln merely, well, fantasizes proposing a non-rigorous dream from our fathers.
By justifying political manipulation and the idolizing of a single politician, Spielberg and Kushner are forced into the weird position of displacing the moral rigor that distinguished their collaboration on Munich. When Lincoln bases his notion of equality on Euclidian principle, referencing a 2,000-year-old secular book as his foundation, then praises “a great invisible strength in a people’s union,” Kushner’s vagrant communist sympathy comes into play. It sounds like a platitude, barely covered up by Lincoln’s out-of-nowhere wish to visit the Holy Land, “where David and Solomon walked.”
As with Angels in America, Kushner is partial to formula, prescription, disquisition—the pageantry of rhetoric. But Spielberg thrives on movement and imagery, and there isn’t enough to keep Lincoln from bogging down in verbiage. It frequently resembles the self-pleasing sophistry favored by this era of punditry and hero-worship.
But the movies’ most memorable political histories have always been films like Young Mr. Lincoln, Amistad and Amazing Grace, which attain the ineffable by honestly clarifying history and risking that Capraesque link between dramatized conscience and delineated principle; that’s what stirs one’s soul in Albert Finney’s conversion scene of Amazing Grace, which found the perfect symbols and actions to express the passion of ideas. Lincoln weakens from the current political era’s disingenuous pageantry of rhetoric. In the current fashion, Spielberg and Kushner replace Lincoln’s soul with his myth. Falling back on the “great man” theory of history, their iconography is only superficially convincing; it feels hollow, ghostly.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
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