“With his death,” writes Doris Kearns Goodwin at the conclusion of Team of Rivals, “Abraham Lincoln had come to seem the embodiment of his own words – ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all’ – voiced in his second inaugural to lay out the visionary pathway to a reconstructed union.” Goodwin’s book is the main source for Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, an almost “anti” biopic that evades showing the expected high notes in the Lincoln symphony, instead condensing its most storied of American subjects into a procedural set on a political chessboard. A man who was “the embodiment of his own words,” this Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) shows how those words ascend and float beyond the grit of his terrestrial existence. The film asks what the specificity or legend of a lone individual means for the broad world, the title card “Lincoln” cutting to the opening images of whooping soldiers with raised bayonets to pierce flesh, their boots stamping on faces to drown them in the mud. Scores of dead are burdened on this name, which represents different things to different people, and remains to do so. In the microcosm of a few months, Lincoln seeks not to “reveal” the macrocosm of a human life or an age, but rather to understand how that life remains mysterious and unknowable, always malleable and moving, never fixed. Lincoln is the great “Uniter,” a curious seeker and seer whose challenge is to move through a labyrinth of swinging pendulums, his rare quality of empathy now part of the historical dialectic. He surrenders himself to the tide, to “the ages” which claim him. Looking into his large black hat, out of which he grabs speeches containing deathless words that usurp plain biography, he could be said to be gazing into a great and mysterious abyss. With that mystical quality along with his curiosity, compassion, and will to take the ills of a nation upon himself, Abraham Lincoln’s closest kin in Spielberg’s universe is E.T. Both characters heal divides between times, people, and places, the alien coming from outer space while Lincoln's extra terrestrial landscape is the cosmos of the mind and deep thought. These characters scratch themselves into our memory, bidding us to "be good" before departing.
The opening trailers in recent months immediately proposed the question of who Lincoln was, and whose Lincoln would Spielberg and Kushner portray? The high-pitched voice of Daniel Day-Lewis, so unlike the great English actor’s other commanding characters (Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, John Procter, Hawkeye), came close to provoking some kind of controversy. Instead of the rock-steady Lincolns pervading popular consciousness and our Halls of Presidents, Lincoln here seemed to be shades of Walter Brennan or even, as lovable Spielberg hater Jeffrey Wells noted, Matthew Modine (though no one mentions Sam Waterston, whose similar high voice was part of the 1987 Gore Vidal-based Lincoln miniseries). It would have been the most wonderful of rejections if popular audiences turned down Spielberg’s Lincoln because of his voice (which historians tell us is probably accurate), a demonstration of what’s so important to the picture Spielberg has created. For as Abraham Lincoln sits and chats with some Union soldiers, they tell him that they were at Gettysburg and saw him at a cemetery dedication years before. “Could you hear me?” Lincoln asks them, regarding his speech. They hey couldn’t. But they know the words, and with some fumbling imperfections, they have it memorized. Lincoln listens as the soldiers, two black and two white, recite his words back to him.
|Hearing himself: Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)|
|Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), portrayed negatively in Birth of a Nation, now represents our present-day conscience in Lincoln.|
|The opening shot of The Godfather. Spielberg introduces Lincoln in a similar fashion, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's choices at times reminded me of "Prince of Darkness" Gordon Willis' work on the Corleone trilogy.|
I don’t think this is necessarily coincidental (or particularly vital, as others remark how the picture is similar to Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent). I may be reading too much into things, as I'm prone to do, but it makes sense that Spielberg would seek out a unique model to inspire his design, rather than fall back on the predictable look of other 19th century epics. He’s even retained Coppola’s motif of doors closing on people, keeping them in the dark and apart from the realities of whatever convoluted process or scheme is being concocted.
|Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) and Mary Todd Lincoln visiting Congress.|
For Whitman that “something else” is of the same cosmic God-stuff in his leaves of grass, the smallest sprout of which “shows there is really no death,” and Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, using the visage and technical mastery of Daniel Day-Lewis, apply Whitman’s transcendentalism and Lincoln’s ceaseless intellectual movement of sensitivity and empathy to the cycle of history: “All goes onward and outward….and nothing collapses.” The American Civil War, as remembered by Walt Whitman, is not relegated to an isolated, concrete patch of history with half-a-million dead and maimed, their blood soaking the grass. It is an “era compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and death – an inexhaustible mine for the histories, drama, romance, and even philosophy of peoples to come – indeed the verteber of poetry and art (of personal character too,) for all future America – far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakspere.” The enigmatic face of Day-Lewis conveys the mystery of Lincoln, which connects to the perennial echoes beneath the circumstances in his times. A cosmic sweep of history isn't attained by Spielberg through David O. Selznick gusto (such as in the recent War Horse) or the extroverted events in Lincoln's life, which we would get in a big miniseries, but in inwardness masterfully conveyed by a thinking human face.
|"We should have run a better man against Lincoln when we had the chance." Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.|
The paradox of a man whose mind is ceaselessly evolving while moving inward is there with one of Lincoln’s first scenes, an unexpected picture of Lincoln’s dream life. He’s on a boat, coasting over water, accelerating through space and the future. He is describing the dream to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), who identifies herself as his “soothsayer.” “I am keenly aware of my aloneness,” Lincoln says, adding that he’s “a king of infinite space.” But the boat, in this recurring dream, is now moving faster than it ever has. Too fast maybe.
|The President's "soothsayer": Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field)|
|Team of Rivals: "Lincoln"|
Abraham Lincoln drew from the well of the literary canon, memorizing the poetry of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, seeing the dimensions of what constituted “the human” in the words. Shakespeare’s characters - Lear, Hamlet, Brutus, Macbeth, Prospero, etc. - vividly portray the plasticity of human identity, its changing and mystery. What Shakespeare richly gives his readers is not necessarily moral lessons to teach us the faults within ourselves, but rather the talent to observe and listen to ourselves while we think, as if we were literary characters. In Lincoln, Spielberg and Day-Lewis convey this in the President’s deliberations, his back-and-forths, his stares, and in his dreams where the “aloneness” of an individual’s existence is overwhelming.
|"There is something else there." Walt Whitman on Lincoln's face.|
Spielberg earlier dealt with this in Amistad, where the abolitionists take offense to the key means of defense a lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) offers to them: they can win through tiptoeing through "vagaries of legal minutiae," and yet doesn't this corrupt their "statement"? In Schindler's List, Schindler and Stern work similarly through business arrangements and documentation, keeping Jews alive. "Do we have to invent a whole new language?" Schindler asks with anger. "I think so," Stern answers. Here, Lincoln, privy to the trajectory where their mutual narrative will go, informs Stevens of the inevitable Reconstruction squabbles, "We shall oppose each other in the course of time," but nothing can go forward unless the abolitionist leader makes this rhetorical compromise. Lincoln's masterstroke is to speciously reply to some conservative Republican congressmen question as to whether Southern representatives have made offers for peace before the vote. Wood is right that Lincoln's written reply, of "To my knowledge" no one from the South is in Washington to offer peace, is a "lawyer's dodge." But it works. And as with Schindler's list, where "all around its margins lies the gulf," the principle behind it trumps the means by which it is achieved.
Elsewhere, Lincoln uses the theatrical quality of storytelling to stir his audience – a tool that may upset more practical and concrete thinkers, like his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), who storms off before Lincoln can relate an Ethan Allen anecdote with a punch-line involving the “sight of George Washington” making British officers shit themselves. He uses lines to his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meant to discourage him from joining the Union Army, and Lincoln knows that it's the "same scene" played out between fathers and sons across the nation. Lincoln quotes Lear ("poor bare-fork'd animals") and Falstaff ("we have heard the chimes at midnight"), and attends an opera of Faust. Like Hamlet, Lincoln understands how "the play's thing thing" that will catch our consciences, how we are unwittingly acting in everyday discourse. As history is rendered as paper, illuminating humankind with each fresh recitation, Lincoln’s active and curious imagination is like that of an aesthete. As Whitman notes, the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford's Theater has a timeless meaning associated “in senses finally dearest to a nation…the imaginative and artistic senses – the literary and dramatic ones…A meaning precious to the race, and to every age.”
The performative quality of politics and statesmanship rhetoric can be of low stuff, geared to preserving and selfishly exerting power, relying on the implacable stone of “clout,” the subject of one of Roy Cohn’s memorable rants from Kushner’s Angels in America. Cohn says, "You are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe what they seem to mean," but "like all labels they mean tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology or sexual taste [Cohn is referring to his status/non-status as a homosexual with AIDS], but something much simpler: clout." We hear the word "freedom" used too cynically nowadays, a front covering nefarious ends. On the other hand, the strategic, theatrical presentation of the self, with which we always see Lincoln here, can be another tool and mask concealing the “self-evident” truths which are obstructed by “clout” and selfishness. Indeed, the villainous Cohn may well be speaking for Lincoln and his approach to Thaddeus Stevens, albeit towards virtuous ends, when he defends his use of labels and language: "This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality."
Beyond that sophistry/reality, though, and its performative theater to be set down on documents for the ages, we know that race, the relationships between human beings is what truly is being communicated (again, as Mr. Jolly says, "Niggers"). And Lincoln the Shakespearian knew all about this. In Lear, the royal court is ripped apart for the king, who discovers the love of his flattering daughters was untrue, while Cordelia, the daughter who wouldn’t “play,” was his most loyal and compassionate progeny. On the stormy heath, Lear strips and encounters the bare truth of human nature, the sublime awfulness of it, and the common denominator that links all people and nature. It’s from this scene in Shakespeare’s play that Lincoln thoughtfully draws, speaking to his black house servant, the confidante and dressmaker to his wife, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben). She asks if he will accept her people as equals. "White people don't want us here," she says. "I don't know you or your people," he admits. But he says that her people, the same as his, is how Lear describes all of us: they're but "poor bare fork’d creatures, such as we all are," and so our expectations shouldn't be "incomprehensible to each other." Keckley had a son die for the Union Army, same as thousands of other mothers. "I'm his mother. What else must I be?" The boundaries of race are surpassed.
Lear’s illumination in literature and language gives Lincoln humility. Lincoln has that “knowingness” of which I spoke, but what distinguishes him from all other men, is that what he knows is that he, the Socratic man, doesn’t know. Lear’s tragic desolation makes this vain king see all men as equal (eyes being an important aspect of the play, the “vile jelly” being grotesquely gouged from Gloucester’s eyes). And it was Abraham Lincoln’s style as an orator and debater, in dealing with either slavery or temperance societies, to understand his opponents’ passion and views, and admit that were he in their shoes, he may very well be agreement with them. It’s the extraordinary gift of the imaginative heart and mind that gave him the upper hand in politics. As different as we are, we're are indeed all poor, bare fork'd creatures.
|Steven Spielberg's Amistad|
|Elliott and E.T. look, feel, learn.|
|Pre-Cognition: Minority Report|
|"It's kind of a ride." Jurassic Park|
|What Schindler sees: Schindler's List|
|"Keep your eyes closed!" Raiders of the Lost Ark|
|Cinema as memory: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence|
|One of the photograph glass plates of a former slave, obsessively viewed by young Tad Lincoln.|
In addition to Tad’s stimulated curiosity, think about what Lincoln says. He has Tad to put the glass plates put away, but he instructs the child to "be careful with them." The images are history, to be preserved. They are something that may not only show, but in their presentation of degradation, they may sway, and hundreds of years in the future serve as documents pointing out where we came from, and how we should be wary of how we change through Time, that “great thickener of things” as Lincoln calls it. Lit by candles, like light going through projected film, Spielberg is making these images cinematic cousins to the filmmaker’s art, documents that illuminate the past. Tellingly, the final moments of Lincoln have the deceased President resurrected through the candlelight by his death bed, the flame dissolving into his Second Inaugural speech, during which Lincoln voices the need for a “just and lasting peace among ourselves with all nations.” The words, like the images, and like the man whose words have usurped him and granted him immortality by etching him into our memory, are there to illuminate us, lighting the path for insight. Not, as is so often alleged of Spielberg, to blind and placate us. Note how Lincoln is awakened to the weight of the "terrible things" he has done with General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), coming close and "intimate" with the corpses on the Petersburg,Virginia battlefield, still smoking after the great conflagrations that preceded it. "I've never seen the like of this before," Lincoln said. Yet Grant reminds him how he might have needed to see it up close.
Lincoln’s relationship to the present is one that the filmmakers are hesitant to embrace, precisely because of our politically divisive times, where Red States and Blue States seem to be drawn on the similar lines that divided a nation in the 1850s. For just as the South seceded soon after Lincoln, a progressive moderate who was by no means an abolitionist, was elected, so too did the Tea Party embrace measures (Voter ID, for example) which probably would not have been touched if a black man, Barack Obama, another moderate, was elected in 2008. Such a deduction is wide open to criticism, I understand, but it’s harder to deny that of our nation’s current political halves, one half sees the Constitution as a fixed document, something that gives unassailable rights of self-governance, while the other understands that everything is in flux, and had those old squabbling codgers, the Founders, be around today, as men of science they would be a little flabbergasted at how backwards and obstinate we are, in many ways still fighting the Cold War (our nation’s fear of anything remotely “socialistic”) just as we’re still hearing, sometimes quite loudly, echoes of the Civil War – itself being the final series of battles in the Revolutionary War. In Petersburg, we see the United States flag and the Confederate flag in the same frame for a moment. The difference is that the Confederate flag is fixed to the ground, while the United States flag moves forward, and out of the frame.
|"We won't know ourselves anymore." Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley)|
accomplishes his checkmate within the congress, abolishing slavery for good and
ending the war soon after, Spielberg and Kushner seem ambivalent about the
prospect of an optimistic closure. The war ends, but we cut to a city
(Richmond, Virginia, following the last siege of Petersburg) on fire. Lincoln wants to pardon deserting soldiers
(“Peace comes, it can’t just be hangings”), but corpses are still wedded
together in the dirt, Union and Confederate, and resentments ride high
(“Liberty all around. Not revenge,” says Lincoln, knowing that the appetite for
vengeance is too present). The wordless exchange between Grant and General Lee
at Appomattox has a somber and haunting undercurrent. Peace is established, but in
this world that's changed too rapidly for the South, the hatchet isn't buried.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, says to Lincoln
about slavery’s end, “We won't know ourselves anymore.” Stephens points out how
Lincoln's Union is built "on cannon-fire and death," with thousands of corpses lain to waste on his watch. The President accept this. One of Lincoln's gifts, again, was understanding how the opinions and emotions of his rivals were natural, and were he in their shoes, he may well feel the same. |
The resentment will continue to simmer, and outside the context of this film, without Lincoln’s guidance, Reconstruction won’t be tidy, and of course, injustices to the black race will continue through the next century and beyond. What we have seen here made it possible to have the president we have today, yes, but the fear and distrust so prevalent regarding him are just as clearly linked, I think, to the attitudes displayed throughout Lincoln’s 1865. But we should also note how delicately Spielberg and Kushner handle this scene between Stephens and Lincoln. I think there is a kind of incomprehension among the Southerners, a desperate sadness which conceives resentment naturally. Stephens is not like the John Calhoun (Arliss Howard) from Amistad, who arrogantly puts the fire of a secessional threat to President Martin Van Buren's (Nigel Hawthorne) feet. Indeed, these characters are racist, backwards, and wrong - unable to grasp the simple declaration: "Slavery's done." But they are endowed by their filmic creators with sensitivity, a vulnerability behind their ferocious and reactionary words.
Our time also associates with Lincoln during the final carriage ride between Mary and Lincoln, during which they acknowledge how miserable they’ve been (“a long death” is how Mary earlier describes her migraine-afflicted life), and resolve to be happy. In peacetime, we return to Lincoln’s dreams, and he tells Mary how he’s not only been thinking about the West, but also the Holy Land, and Jerusalem. “I dream of walking in that ancient city,” Abraham Lincoln says, namesake of the father to three clashing religions who dwell there. Knowing that Kushner and Spielberg’s previous collaboration was the imperfect but masterful Munich, about Israel and Palestinians trapped in ceaseless bloodshed, we wonder of how distant that Jerusalem of 1865 must be, and how this great Philosopher President of “semi-divine stature,” is progenitor to a country which will be embroiled so detrimentally with matters related to that Holy Land in the years to come, as rockets are being fired to and from Gaza as I write this, and tensions with nearby Iran accelerate the unsteady hand of a doomsday clock. Munich also questions our inability to prognosticate the future and our ethical attitudes. The protagonist Avner (Eric Bana) listens the philosophical musings of a friend's girlfriend: "Should one look at right and wrong as ethical questions? That is the problem. Marcuse says Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right' does not assign a moral category to 'wrong.' Free will inevitably causes wrong. That's written by Marx. The blind anarchy of capitalism. You have to be prepared to reconsider right and wrong. Because basically those are just terms that express a horrible struggle, parts of an equation of pure dialectic." Avner looks on while sharing marijuana, and admits with a laugh that he really doesn't understand. But Lincoln has the same affect on Seward when he talks about Time and our inability to look into "the seeds of Time" and see how those seeds would grow. Seward admits his incomprehension, and Spielberg's audience laughs. But though there's no "profit in prophecy," as Lincoln tells Robert, Spielberg and Kushner want to have us consider, with our perceptions and the causal path of geopolitical events, a longview of incessant change, with ideas in friction conceiving new ideas and perceptions.
|The insoluble dialectic: Munich|
|Moving forward: Lincoln|
The wonderfully insightful New York critic Bilge Ebiri writes about how Spielberg presents father and son in the picture, tying them to America’s destiny, noting that Tad is “something of a ghost, or an angel – a figure in whom America’s past, present, and future merge. The son might, in a sense, represent the nation’s conscience — both its broken promise of freedom and its belief in a higher purpose.” The most stirring shot of Lincoln figures after the climactic vote, the bells ringing with promise in the distance, father and child embracing tightly together and looking out of the shadows and into the light of day with the drapes and thick saturating white enshrouding them. We feel their distance from us, but are reminding of how our present is forged restlessly, even from such a distance, every gesture and word filled with inception and budding possibilities.
(Like Lincoln, I'm afraid I carry the traits of a bad preacher: "I could write shorter sermons, but when I start I get too lazy to stop." If you just scrolled to the end here and thought this was too long, an abridged version of my take on Lincoln can be found here at l'etoile magazine's website).
I'm also going to link other blogs and insightful reviews Lincoln as they come around, in addition to making my own revisions:
The brilliant Cinephiliacs maestro Peter Labuza's take.
Another piece by Bilge Ebiri, linking Lincoln to Amistad.
Sean Gilman, of The End of Cinema blog.
James Callahan of Artist Access on Lincoln, and his favorite Spielberg films. He's awesome, because our two favorites are identical (solidarity A.I. lovers).
Scott MacDonald of the Toronto Standard.
Kevin Levin of The Atlantic defends Lincoln from nitpicking historians.
Two pieces by Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, on the film and the lessons the film may have for President Obama.
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly.
A.O. Scott of The New York Times.
Historian Roy Blount Jr. in The Smithsonian.
MSN critic Glenn Kenny.
Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times.
Omar Moore of Popcornreel.com.