Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln might just be the most fascinating exploration of the overlap between legal, moral and democratic power ever produced. Abraham Lincoln’s name might brand the film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ sensational performance might hold it together, but there’s a very clear sense in watching Lincoln that the film is more preoccupied with lofty philosophical questions about the role of a ruler in a democracy. The Civil War and the 13th Amendment provide a backdrop, but Lincoln seems more concerned with how those elected must wield the mandate given from the people. Must they always represent the views of the people who elected them, or is their job to lead?
The context for Lincoln is obvious. Abraham Lincoln is one of the most revered and respected individuals in United States history. It would be hard to find anybody who doesn’t have a rough idea of his time in office. From the war between the North and the South through to his assassination at a theatre, Lincoln’s life stops somewhere just short of legend. After all, Chester A. Arthur: Vampire Hunter probably seems a far less likely pop culture mash-up.
Biographical films have a tendency to focus on the personal aspect of the subject in question, an attempt to humanise them or make them “relatable.” It’s been the primary flaw of quite a few recent biographies. Hitchcock tried to serve up a slice of the legendary director’s home life while covering the making of Psycho. The Iron Lady suggested that Margaret Thatcher’s political accomplishments and the shadow she cast over the British political landscape were somehow less interesting than her marriage or her relationship with her children.
Lincoln is smart enough that it mostly avoids this problem. The interactions between Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln are non-intrusive and smart enough to merit the attention given to them. “All anyone will remember of me is I was crazy and I ruined your happiness,” Mary Todd confesses at one point, reflecting on what had been a commonly-held opinion of her role in her husband’s life. In a nice moment, her husband assures her, “Anyone thinks that doesn’t understand, Molly.” It’s a bit of historical revisionism that it’s hard to disapprove of.
Less successful is the subplot featuring Robert Lincoln, who wants to go off and fight the war, after his parents have already lost so much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very powerful human drama, but it probably belongs in a different account of Lincoln’s life. It probably sucks to be the son of a beloved politician, and it is probably terrible to live in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, but the Robert Lincoln subplot represents the only point in the film where it feels like there’s a conscious and forced effort being made to give the Lincoln family some human interest angle.
That it plays into Spielberg’s favourite themes doesn’t help. For all his brilliance, Lincoln is a Spielberg character and, thus, a less than perfect father. Sadly, the scenes with Joseph Gordon Levitt all feel like they could have been trimmed to give the film a tighter runtime. The dialogue feels particularly awkward, as writer Tony Kushner has to cram a relationship into the gaps between the more pertinent scenes.
As a result, Lincoln and his son get some exchanges that feel a little ham-fisted. “I won’t be you, pa,” Robert complains at one point. “I can’t do that. But I don’t want to be nothing.” It’s too heavy, it’s too on-the-nose, and it doesn’t really pay-off that much. There’s no real thread in the grander narrative that it connects to, and Lincoln’s relationship with his son feels like a bit of a clumsy loose end. Because, at its core, Lincoln isn’t really about Abraham Lincoln so much as it is an exploration of the politics he had to engage with.
The political landscape facing Lincoln is legendarily difficult. He was fighting a war with the Confederate States of America. At the same time as America waged a war of brother-against-brother, Lincoln was trying desperately to alter the American perspective on the issue of slavery. The notion of racial equality was explosive at the time, and it seemed like Lincoln was practically fighting another war in order to get the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution passed.
And this is where Spielberg’s Lincoln is deeply fascinating. It’s an exploration of the political process. It’s about the difficulties and moral questions facing a democratically elected ruler who is trying to act on his own best judgement, but actively against the wishes of the people who elected him. “Democracy is the worst for of government,” Winston Churchill once remarked, “except all the others that have been tried.” The film works best playing with those sorts of questions, the exploiting and distorting of the democratic system to reach a noble end.
In a way, the context and setting are secondary to those questions, providing a necessary backdrop but not necessarily governing the film. Lincoln feels strongly on the issue of equality, but he seems to see it as a logical problem, more than a human one. Discussing Euclid’s first theorem, he explains, “There it is, even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical law: it is a selfevident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That’s the origin, isn’t it? That balance, that’s fairness, that’s justice.”
When Elizabeth Keckley, a freed slave, asks him about how he feels about African-Americans, he confesses, “I… I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re… familiar to me, as all people are.” His direct experience of slavery is also somewhat limited. His father moved the family away from the slave plantations because he couldn’t compete with them. Explaining the most direct encounter related in the film, he states, “I saw a barge once, Mr. Yeaman, filled with colored men in chains, heading down the Mississippi to the New Orleans slave markets. It sickened me, ‘n more than that, it brought a shadow down, a pall around my eyes.”
For Lincoln the issue of equality was not a personal one, not an emotional one rooted in some early experience. It was a logical one, stemming from basic principles. And the film doesn’t necessarily engage with the cruelty and the day-to-day realities of slavery as it existed in America. There are a few references to brutality towards former slaves. Keckley confesses she was beaten as a child, and Tad views photographic evidence of the toll of slavery on those in bondage while his older brother explains the economy of slave-trading.
However, Lincoln feels a little intellectual in the way that it handles the issue of slavery. Django Unchained offers a much more harrowing exploration of the casual cruelty and the price of that culture. Instead, Lincoln uses that as a backdrop to explore broader questions of leadership. Lincoln knows that slavery is wrong, and yet the public and the elected officials disagree. As a democratically elected leader, what can (and, more to the point, what should) Lincoln be able to force upon the people.
Although the Confederate States consider Lincoln’s stand on the issue to be radical, we are also introduced to Thaddeus Stevens. Stephens is one of those historical characters, like Mary Todd, who has been unfairly treated by history. He was presented as the fanatical Stoneman in the racist Birth of a Nation, and portrayed as a villain in its sequel novel The Clansman. However, Stevens was even vilified in more mainstream and less racist films, such as Tennessee Johnson in 1942.
The portrayal here is a great deal kinder, presented Stevens as a profoundly moral man in a time that was not ready for him. He considers Lincoln’s compromised approach to equality as an affront to human dignity, rejecting the notion that Lincoln has to be mindful of the people who elected him:
Ah, sh!t on the people and what they want and what they’re ready for! I don’t give a goddamn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of ‘em. And I look a lot worse without the wig. The people elected me! To represent them! To lead them! And I lead! You ought to try it!
Politics is compromise, and Lincoln is an absolutely stunning exploration of the political machine in action, one that asks uncomfortable questions about how democracy works when the leaders and the people disagree on these sorts of fundamental points.
It’s to the credit of Spielberg and writer Kushner that they don’t compromise in their portrayal of the tactics and the approach adopted by Lincoln in the pursuit of his goal. He can’t come on too strong, because of political realities. Even the uncompromising Stevens finds himself in a situation where he might have to impugn his own sense of moral righteousness in order to accomplish a just end. More than that, though, Lincoln is remarkably honest about the manner in which Lincoln and his supporters attempted to secure the two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendment.
“Laws are like sausages,” Otto von Bismark may or may not have said, “it is better not to see them being made.” If that is the case, Lincoln is a trip to the sausage factory – a metaphor that seems a bit clumsier now that I’ve written it down. The gap between the legal conception of reality and reality itself is actually quite fascinating, if you can handle it right. Another of the more fascinating aspects of Lincoln is the way that it explores those legal fictions and distorted truths that we use to rationalise or to explain or to save face.
At one point, a politician accuses Lincoln of using “a lawyer’s dodge” to avoid giving an incriminating answer. At another point, Ulysses S. Grant asks representatives of the Confederate States of America to clarify their language. Reading their letter, Grant notes, “It says… ‘securing peace for our two countries.’ And it goes on like that.” His objection is one of form. He clarifies, “There’s just one country.” Recognising the Confederate States as a nation has implications beyond acknowledging the war as anything more than a rebel uprising.
None of these words change the reality in any way or form, but they change the way that people relate to that reality. They bestow legitimacy on concepts, or they allow people to agree to things that might otherwise offend sensibilities or principles. In a way, Lincoln might be the most fascinating movie ever written about legal theory, about the verbal gymnastics involved in balancing so many demands from so many people and tying them together in a way that isn’t actively dishonest. Even if the film didn’t confirm that Lincoln, the avowed storyteller, began his career as a lawyer, it wouldn’t be too hard to guess.
It’s that insight which makes Lincoln fascinating. This is a side of Civil War politics that you rarely see, and it feels remarkably honest in its portrayals of the day-to-day reality of running a government. It’s a bit weird to see the Civil War and slavery itself pushed to the background of a film about Abraham Lincoln, but it feels strangely appropriate. After all, we know about these things from history. It’s much more fascinating to watch the mechanics at work, and also to ponder the heavier questions that must have faced the man.
“I am the President of the United States of America,” Lincoln explains at one point, “clothed in immense power!” At its best, Lincoln is an exploration of that power, and its application. It dares to raise a number of moral questions about the role of an elected executive, and it shrewdly avoids pretending that it has all the answers. The outcome is desirable, but that’s a clever way of allowing the film to present these means in a defensible light.
As is to be expected from a Spielberg film, the production values are astounding. John Williams provides a powerful score and Spielberg has assembled a wonderful cast. Tommy Lee Jones stands out as Thaddeus Stevens, but the entire ensemble of actors is amazing. Highlights include: John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader as three lobbyists; David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward; Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant; and Bruce McGill as the humourless Edwin Stanton.
Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as Lincoln, and his presence makes the Robert Lincoln subplot redundant. Day-Lewis humanises Lincoln by his very presence, and he offers another superb and transformative performance. There’s a sense that his version of Lincoln is at once the invulnerable giant of legend, the ruler whose will seemed strong enough to tame his nation, while at the same time suggesting that the character’s physical strength is slowly draining even as his resolve hardens. It’s fantastic, and it means that all the drama about process and politics is deeply rooted in a very real central character.
Lincoln is a damn fine film. It’s only really held back by the inclusion of an awkward domestic subplot that seems intended to humanise Lincoln as a character. Oddly enough, Lincoln works best detached from its lead protagonist – offering a clinical exploration of the legal technicalities and the political machinations that made his presidency possible.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | Abraham Lincoln, Academy Award, Confederate States of America, Daniel Day-Lewis, film, history, Lincoln, margaret thatcher, Mary Todd Lincoln, Movie, non-review review, r eview, spielberg, steven spielberg, Tony Kushner, United States