A More Perfect Union
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., DreamWorks/Twentieth Century Fox/Touchstone
There is only one battle scene—at least, of the military variety—in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and it comes at the very beginning of the film. Union and Confederate soldiers impale one another with bayonets and beat each other with their bare fists, as Spielberg’s camera scans the multitude, revealing more than a few African-American faces amongst the men in blue uniforms. The warfare is positively premodern, and so it stands out in an oeuvre that (with a few exceptions) has tended instead to approach violence from a modern or futuristic perspective—think of Indy pulling his gun on the sword-wielding Arab in Raiders, or the enormously destructive spider-like “tripods” of War of the Worlds, respectively. On a deeper level, though, this brief opening battle establishes the central theme of Lincoln, and it’s a theme that lies very much at the heart of Spielberg’s cinema: if Lincoln is intended to be a biopic about arguably the most revered commander-in-chief in the history of the Republic, it also positions itself with its opening images as a film about race.
As surely as that first scene functions as a signpost, the next is a brilliant misdirect. Lincoln himself (Daniel Day-Lewis in near-perfect makeup) sits on a chair, observing the now-calm battlefield. He interviews two black soldiers, one of whom is deferential, the other confrontational, demanding that blacks receive equal compensation for their service to the Union. Lincoln humors him, but it becomes clear early in the film that considerations of racial equality are a political nuisance to this president. He wants to win the war, and he wants to abolish slavery by passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. More radical advocacy of racial equality will only get in the way of achieving these righteous ends. On the field, the black soldiers are interrupted by two whites who begin to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to the great orator with the shrill tenor voice. They stumble, and leave it to the more confrontational of the black soldiers to intone the universally known words that conclude the speech—a cunning inversion, perhaps, of Spielberg’s Amistad, in which white lawyers spoke for a group of black Africans seeking their freedom. As the soldier rattles off his “of the people, by the people, for the people,” there Lincoln sits, in a pose that anticipates the one he would later assume in perpetuity as a statue of Georgia marble in the Washington Mall, already a living monument, more idea than man and, perhaps, a man who doesn’t quite measure up to the lofty ideas he represents.
The gambit of Spielberg’s Lincoln is to humanize this almost mythic figure. Its triumph, thanks largely to an erudite and ambitious screenplay that places utter faith in the intelligence of its audience, authored by the playwright Tony Kushner, is to do so without trying to deconstruct his greatness. It is easy for filmmakers to chip away at the veneer of larger-than-life historical figures; it is far more difficult to acknowledge genius in a mere human and then construct a movie that attempts to capture both that genius and his or her humanity. This Abe slaps his eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a fit of rage; he chastises his already pitiful wife (Sally Field), bemoaning the day he decided against institutionalizing her; he even considers jettisoning abolition altogether, simply to win peace with the Confederacy before more blood is shed on both sides. This is not a man of marble. And yet every word he speaks seems to emerge from a deep reservoir of intelligence, grace, humility, and pragmatism. As embodied by Day-Lewis, giving probably the least showy of his finest performances (next to his Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence), this Lincoln is a man who belongs, in the words of the doctor who pronounced his death, “to the ages.” Lazy filmmakers might strive only to canonize or undermine. Spielberg and Kushner take a treacherous middle road, attempting instead to understand what makes Lincoln a great man, in the fullest sense of both words. Their protagonist in this film is paradigmatically the opposite of the Spielberg prototype, dubbed by the filmmaker as his “Mr. Everyday Regular Fella.” Far from everyday or regular, he is the sort of fella who emerges once in an epoch.
In a further gamble, the director and screenwriter strive to reveal their subject by limiting their film’s scope, more or less, to a few mere weeks at the end of Lincoln’s first term, at a time when the overwhelmingly popular president resolved to take advantage of the lame duck Congress to pass the 13th Amendment. In a dizzying speech to his Cabinet, lawyer-cum-president Lincoln argues that the very authority with which he freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation was legally tenuous, that it depended upon an invocation of a state of war the president had otherwise vociferously denied (choosing instead to argue that the Confederacy was not an independent state but a band of rebels). In Lincoln’s logic, he confiscated property from American citizens on the thinnest of legal grounds, and unless he amended the Constitution to eliminate the possibility of slavery, he ran the risk of a Reconstruction that would require former slaves to be shipped back to their masters. On one hand, the speech tests the audience’s patience for legalese; on the other, it is a tour-de-force, a brilliant meditation on the fundamental tension between moral right and democratic law, delivered by an actor so thoroughly in command of the character that it feels almost effortlessly tossed off—one can only imagine that Lincoln, the lawyer and the president, spent many sleepless nights playing this debate out in his mind. This may be wonkery, or it may be that place where history conspires to bring morality and pragmatism into conflict with one another, leaving only but the most gifted of political minds to find a way out of this morass.
Lincoln’s way forward is a dubious one. Working with his once-rival Secretary of State Henry Seward (a low-key David Strathairn), he hires two proto-lobbyists (James Spader and John Hawkes) to woo as many lame-duck Democrats as possible to the amendment’s cause, using the promise of government appointments in their home states to sweeten the deal. Meanwhile, the president begins courting the conservative and progressive wings of his party, largely without the sign-off of various members of his Cabinet. To secure the support of the former, he must promise Representative Francis Blair (Hal Holbrook) that he will entertain the peace overtures of a Confederate delegation, thereby exposing the amendment vote to significant political risk. The latter faction, led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens (a terrific Tommy Lee Jones) remains circumspect of the president’s motives and what he intends to do when Reconstruction arrives. Thus, most of Lincoln plays as a methodical political procedural. “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” wrote the sociologist Max Weber in “Politics as a Vocation,” “It takes both passion and perspective.” Kushner’s screenplay illuminates precisely this process and seeks, in so doing, to reveal the passion and perspective that make true leadership. But this “strong and slow boring of hard boards” is hardly boring; it is the stuff of which history and ethics are made.
In trying to convince Stevens of maintaining his allegiance and, by extension, holding the progressive coalition together, Lincoln plays off a metaphor invoked by the more radically liberal Republican Representative, and in the process demonstrates the rhetorical and intellectual gifts that distinguished him as a political thinker. Stevens argues that his cause must be the pursuit of racial equality, likening it to the “true north” that a compass reveals. Lincoln counters that this “true north” revealed by the compass means nothing without it otherwise detailing the deserts, seas, canyons, crevasses, and other obstacles that lie between one’s present position and one’s destination. This is the contradiction of Lincoln the film and Lincoln the historical figure: the pursuit of morally unambiguous ends sometimes requires the employment of questionable means.
The film thus operates on two registers simultaneously, one of principled ideas and one of clear-eyed pragmatism, both of which the president appears to espouse. He has a sagelike quality, spinning yarns about a woman on trial for murdering her husband or invoking Euclid to make moral sense of how to handle the Confederate delegation en route to Washington, using these ostensible digressions to illuminate truths he presents as self-evident. Almost every character, however, from Confederate VP Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) to Mary Todd Lincoln herself, approaches him with both respect and skepticism, as though they know that the professorial man pontificating in front of them possesses a powerful and persuasive intellect but that they aren’t sure of the endgame he is playing.
Kushner and Spielberg do not share this circumspection. Instead, the film takes its historiographic perspective for granted; as a twenty-first-century audience, we know that Lincoln will succeed in his efforts to pass the amendment, that the war will end shortly thereafter, and that he’ll be assassinated weeks later by a man who labeled him a “tyrant.” Each of these is a given, to the point that these events, the most significant from a perspective of pure plot to transpire in the film, all happen offscreen. In Lincoln, it is the how that matters.
All of this is a way of saying that Lincoln is less a straightforward biopic or even a character study than a portrait of political process, and it also happens to be amongst the most visually restrained of any of Spielberg’s films. Though beautifully designed by Rick Carter and shot and lit in typically expert fashion by the incomparable Janusz Kaminski, the movie has a fundamentally theatrical quality, due largely to its emphasis on dialogue-heavy interior scenes, such as Lincoln’s Cabinet meetings and the debates about the 13th Amendment in the House. These observations ignore, however, the assured confidence of Spielberg’s direction: he shoots the dialogue in this film like a series of action set pieces, his camera restless and constantly in service of his actors, Michael Kahn’s editing matching his roving camera beat for beat. Where War Horse overcompensated for a ham-fisted screenplay with Fleming-esque visual flourish, Lincoln rarely makes an attempt to assert its visuality over and above the ideas embedded in Kushner’s screenplay—perhaps only in a dream sequence near the beginning and a post-assassination flashback near the end. Rather, this is a film by arguably the most accomplished of our visual stylists that rests its success squarely on the strength of its script and the quality of its acting. And for those willing to contemplate it seriously enough in the context of Spielberg’s other movies, Lincoln may emerge as a singular—and singularly successful—project, one that demonstrates the director’s capacity, rarely acted upon, to value words over action, ideas over entertainment. There are few Hollywood filmmakers who could have pushed a big-budget, star-studded, word-heavy period piece with this level of intelligence through the studio system. For that alone, Spielberg deserves credit; for doing so in a manner that upends many cynical truisms about what makes a “Spielberg film” in concept and form, he also deserves praise.
Those disinclined to praise could find aspects of the movie to quibble about. There are subplots that drag, such as one about the president’s eldest son wanting to enlist in the Union army; in the role, the typically charismatic Gordon-Levitt struggles unsuccessfully to hold the frame opposite Day-Lewis (though the scene in which he follows a bleeding wheelbarrow culminates in the movie’s most graphic and striking visual, a rare example of an assertion of image over dialogue). John Williams’s score, while judiciously deployed, is at times typically and cloyingly emphatic. And despite their relative restraint, Spielberg and Kaminski sometimes light and compose a shot that calls a little too much attention to itself—it’s as though they can’t help it. Lincoln nevertheless and rather defiantly asserts itself as the rarest kind of Hollywood film: like its subject, it is challenging, unwieldy, inspiring, and thoughtful.
Repeatedly, President Lincoln gets challenged by his adversaries who claim his actions are undemocratic or antidemocratic. Lincoln counters that his task is to uphold democracy in the longer term by whatever means necessary and to let the American people stand as judge. Towards the end of the movie, he even goes so far as to posit that the Union he has fought to preserve is, in essence, one that hasn’t yet existed, that the democracy he is trying to build is one that is still in a state of becoming. In Amistad, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) ended his appeal to the Supreme Court to free the Amistad slaves with the platitude, “Who we are is who we were.” The statement implies a troubling teleological attitude towards American exceptionalism, as though slavery’s abolition was somehow inevitable and that the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slaveholders, never intended for the country to be a slave state. Next to that compelling but unsuccessful movie, Spielberg’s Lincoln stands as a bold corrective. This Lincoln does not prophesy an incontrovertible march towards the fulfillment of our preordained destiny; he sees a country, instead, torn by war and divided over slavery, a country that through any means necessary—even means that may seem anathema to the American project—must persist in moving closer to the ideal realization of itself. In Lincoln, who we are is not who we were. But with the right leadership, we might become a better version of ourselves, the America we ought most strive to be.