In America we have neither kings nor gods. Our brief experiments with any cult of personality ended badly, though they inspired some excellent movies along the way (All the Kings Men and Gabriel over the White House spring to mind). We have put our greatest presidents on mountains and given them monuments on the National Mall in Washington, but we’ve never admired them with the same spirit as the divine right of European monarchs or the fanatical devotion required of totalitarian dictatorship. Biopics of our Commanders-in-Chief are often either ambiguous critiques, like Nixon, or flippant light pieces along the lines of NYFF’s Hyde Park on Hudson. This history makes Steven Spielberg’s newest undertaking almost unprecedented.
Lincoln is an earnest attempt to give Honest Abe a cinematic apotheosis, the kind of hero-making treatment rarely given one of our leaders on film.
This is also a new path for Spielberg himself. Previous capital-I “Important” films have focused on a more collective triumph of the people, from Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List to the more directly applicable Amistad. Where those works take a wide look at the trials, tribulations and heroics of large and varied casts, Lincoln puts on its blinders and focuses on a very specific period in the life of a single icon. Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner are only concerned with a few short months in early 1865 — telling the story of the arduous passage of the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives — and nothing more. Yet just this small glimpse at the Lincoln presidency gives them many opportunities to build up a great American hero.
All of this is possible only through Daniel Day-Lewis’ unparalleled performance. The unique difficulty of this role cannot be stressed enough. On the one hand, the entire nation has an idea ingrained into its mind as to who Lincoln was, from countless images and historical narratives. However, we have no idea exactly what he sounded like or how he moved. Day-Lewis has no means of impersonating the man yet he must fool the audience into thinking he has done so, creating a character that lines up with the preconceived notions of the public. Miraculously, he pulls it off. His voice and mannerisms are artfully inspired and deceptively precise.
Yet it does seem as if this portrayal comes from a few more accessible places. The character written by Kushner and brought to life by Day-Lewis fits right in line with the adored presidents for whom we do have audio and video record. FDR in particular seems like the source of much of Lincoln’s charm, fireside chats transposed into the 19th century. He spends much of the film telling stories, using anecdotes and oddball metaphors to make his case to the rowdy politicians on Capitol Hill. They include everything from an amusing tale of a parrot in St. Louis to a particularly whimsical analogy comparing the pursuit of the 13th Amendment to whaling. He is also merciful, pardoning deserting soldiers and filling the role of the charismatic, warm-hearted father of the nation.
Inevitably, he must add some distinctly American political virtues. That ever-present but perhaps falsely crucial devotion to the rational center of the political spectrum comes to the fore mid-way through the film. This is built through opposition to Tommy Lee Jones, whose turn as Thaddeus Stevens is the second best thing about the film. Stricken with the worst wig in American cinema since Barbara Stanwyck’s helmet in Double Indemnity, Stevens is the radical heart of the Republican Party opposed to Lincoln’s more measured approach to abolition. He wants a complete reconstruction of the South, voting rights for freed slaves, and a whole slew of other policies that will not only scare most of Lincoln’s white supporters but probably would have no chance of passing through Congress. He is also the moral center of the film, and the closest to the values which we currently profess.
Therefore, Lincoln has to rebuff him and convince Stevens to compromise his beliefs in order to get the Amendment through. Nothing is more quintessentially American, it seems, than to hew toward the center for the greater good. In the larger context as well, the president’s battle with the House of Representatives drives home the most interesting element of the film’s glorification of the Honest Abe as national icon and idol. The very narrow historical window shown in the film allows Lincoln to be seen as the prime mover of abolition rather than simply its most powerful proponent. There is no sign of any abolitionist activism, neither William Lloyd Garrison nor Harriet Beecher Stowe. There is almost no mention of female abolitionists and the concurrent struggle for votes for women, nor is there even a brief appearance from Frederick Douglass or any African American contribution to the movement. There are a sympathetic maid and a loyal butler, a brief cameo by S. Epatha Merkerson, and crowds of non-speaking black actors. Passive recipients of their freedom from the president, they smile with gratitude.
Now, Lincoln need not be criticized for these exclusions. It is far from being ignorant, historically inaccurate, or racially problematic. The larger picture of abolition is left off screen because that is simply not what Spielberg and Kushner set out to do. This is a work of icon-building, a biopic that concerns itself primarily with the grandeur and integrity of its lead. There is only enough room for a single ardent collaborator in the anti-slavery project, and that is filled by Jones’ rich turn as Representative Stevens. Anyone more would make Lincoln a secondary character to the larger tale of American freedom. The question, therefore, is not whether Lincoln effectively (yes) or artfully (probably not) achieves its goals. Rather, we must ask ourselves whether a film like this falls flat because of something about the character of our culture. Is there a place for this kind of historical sainthood? Or is the more collective heroism, that of Spielberg’s earlier films, more our speed? Can we have gods if we don’t even have kings?
The Upside: These really are some of the best performances of the year, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.
The Downside: John Williams has just gotten schlocky.
On the Side: The real Thaddeus Stevens was the inspiration for Austin Stoneman, the naive and harsh abolitionist congressman in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Oh, how times have changed.