By Eric Plaag
I must confess that perhaps my least favorite genre of cinema is the biopic. Typically, we are forced to endure a half hour to forty-five minutes of the life-altering circumstances of a major figure’s youth, then be reminded for the rest of the film, ad nauseum, by a script that beats us into submission through melodramatic excess and less than artfully staged turns, that those early days are exactly why so-and-so turned out to be such-and-such. In short, such films almost always violate the golden rule (note that I do not say “commandment”) of storytelling: Show, do not tell.
Enter Lincoln, the much anticipated film focused on one of our most popular Presidents, and quite possibly our most important one. Early trailers gave me hope when I saw Daniel Day-Lewis’s awkward, hunched figure holding court with his cabinet and heard the high-pitched, country-boy twang he used to spin a tale that would twist their understanding of the historical moment through which they were galloping. Still, though, I braced for the worst excesses of the genre, especially with Steven Spielberg directing and Sally Field playing Mary Todd Lincoln.
I need not have worried. Rather than cantering us through Lincoln’s youth, his many failures as a businessman, his tortured courtship and marriage with “Molly,” and his improbable rise to political prominence, all as a build-up to the “action” of the war and his assassination, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (an odd choice, given that his only previous screenplay credit is for Munich) instead follow the sage example of Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian who originally penned the particular consideration of Lincoln and his significance upon which the film is based. We are immersed in media res: January 1865, the war slogging to its end but the South not ready to give, and a political scenario in which a re-elected Lincoln still cannot quite claim a mandate and thus cannot be certain that conservative Republicans will align with the Radicals and secure a sufficient number of votes from the dozens of lame-duck Democrats to confirm passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House.
It’s a brilliant maneuver, as far as cinematic storytelling goes, and yet I immediately worry that audiences in a culture dominated by Honey Boo Boo and Facebook memes will not have the patience to wait for and then appreciate the subtleties of this script, the political moment that it captures, and the significance of that story for our own times. Fields’s Mary Todd, for example, is not the raving lunatic we have come to expect in films about Lincoln, and yet she is clearly mentally ill, tormented daily—as she tells us with sensible but neurotic passion—by the death of their son Willy and the knowledge that the blood of hundreds of thousands of men is on her husband’s hands. Rather than playing her as merely a distraction to Lincoln, we see her for what he and few others understood her to be—a complicated but essential ally and external conscience. Perhaps her finest moment in this film comes when she dresses down her husband’s doubters as she officially greets them at a White House function. To the casual bystander and to a viewer not accustomed to the intricacies and subtleties of both nineteenth-century speech and early American backcountry rhetoric, her behavior will seem inappropriate and certainly unbecoming of a First Lady; and yet the target of her opprobrium is well aware that she is exactly correct, incisive in both wit and truth, forces with which there can be no real reckoning.
Similarly, the politics of the House chamber, which are often the real star of this show, will seem foreign and unseemly to some. Seeing Charles Sumner briefly on screen, I was quickly reminded that this is a House chamber in which Preston Brooks once beat Sumner nearly to death with his cane over a snide comment Sumner made about Brooks’s uncle during floor debate. While that moment is an oft-repeated reminder of how unruly American politics had become prior to the war, such personal invectives were actually a common occurrence then, a part of the standard banter of congressional arguments, designed both to mask the backroom wheeling and dealing and to goad one’s political opponents into making stupid and costly rejoinders that could and did harm them more with their colleagues than with a public mostly ignorant of floor debate. In a twenty-first century world where any speeches made on the House floor are usually directed at 435 empty seats, such a spectacle might seem both quaint and ultimately ahistorical. But it’s not. This is how things got done once upon a time in America. Good and, yes, not so good elected officials once won the day by convincing one’s peers with the strength of their arguments and the elegance of their rhetoric, not by preening before the cameras to win the news cycle with a single, banal, three-second sound bite.
Similarly, this is the historical Lincoln, not the cartoon caricature first presented to us in elementary school that endures in the public imagination, and Day-Lewis’s portrayal is simultaneously staggering for its accuracy and quietly unsettling in its complexity. He anguishes over son Tad’s fascination with samples of Gardner’s infamous glass plate negatives of slaves, considering them in the glow of late night firelight, their images burning into his conscience as quickly as they might into nineteenth-century photographic paper. His long-rumored depression has substance and palpability here, as does his remarkable ability to both sway and annoy listeners with a casual story that bites in the beginning, always, yes always, by showing, not telling, then leaves a mark that filters down into the soul with time. Though the film covers an arc of only four months, we see him age before us, and though we cannot point to a single moment in the film that is decisive in that aging, we nevertheless appreciate and sympathize with his weariness. Most importantly, he is a pragmatist with principles, a man conflicted by his own shifting political positions, his awareness of his limitations, and the rare but essential understanding that nations are not made and do not endure on principle alone. In a particularly telling scene, Lincoln meets secretly with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and the leader of the Radicals, to discuss the political impasse at hand and the importance that Stevens look past the principles to which he has adhered ardently, unflinchingly for the past forty years. A compass is an excellent thing, Lincoln insists, but it will do you no good when you encounter the swamp. Should one plunge forward into the morass in the pursuit of true north? Or is it better to interpret one’s surroundings to find a path around those obstacles, true north always in mind?
I am sometimes asked, as an historian, whom I admire among our Presidents and why. I have my gripes with Lincoln, with the ways in which he sacrificed some of our most sacred rights (habeas corpus, to name just one), even though he did so in the genuine and ultimately accurate belief that it might save the nation. Such sacrifices, after all, are also the path to fascism and dictatorship. In that way, I guess, I am a little like Thaddeus Stevens, preferring to believe that selling one’s soul in the short term, even for what one most wants, will ultimately exact a much higher price of us. But my favorite Presidents are also those who understand that politics in America always were and probably always will be a long game. In Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln, we see the coolness and reserve that such an understanding requires of Presidents if they are to be effective in our most difficult times as a nation, and we also see his ability to privilege a compassion and appreciation for regular Americans and their long-term interests above the short-term benefits of political expedience or fame or popularity. FDR understood this, too, and so, I would argue, does Obama, which is one of the reasons he is so maddening to both conservatives and far-left liberals who can see only the short game right now, both in principle and practice. That this film amplifies this point again and again, without ever being condescending or divisive, is a testament to its strength and its importance both for our times and for generations that will follow. It’s also not an accident. It should also tell us something about our own political landscape that the extreme right is infuriated at this film, preferring to remain wrapped and blindfolded in the unfounded myth of Lincoln as a compass-driven statue rather than wrestling with the implications of his many contradictions, his moral ambiguities, and his evolving positions on both slavery and American national identity.
I have said scarcely a word about this film’s intriguing, star-studded cast, whose more notable performances include James Spader as one of the nation’s first skilled lobbyist’s, W. N. Bilbo, and David Strathairn as Lincoln’s slippery rival turned indispensable Secretary of State, William Seward. But there are also some bizarre cameos that play not as wink-wink star turns but rather as evidence of a remarkable sense of what used to be known as the ensemble cast in Hollywood. In a recent CNN interview, Spader—an actor not particularly renowned for being magnanimous—deflected praise for his own performance and instead demanded that the interviewer refocus on the marvel that is Day-Lewis’s portrayal and the importance of the national message imbedded in this film. One wonders if it was exactly this spirit that encouraged Kevin Kline to accept one of five parts billed as “wounded soldier,” Lukas Haas to appear on screen for less than one minute as “first white soldier,” and even the immensely popular (and busy of late) John Hawkes to seem deeply satisfied, maybe even a little overwhelmed, to receive high billing as Lincoln staffer Robert Latham, even though his lines number in the single digits. And while Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is not the star of this show, there are countless stunning, essential moments of beauty here, including a long, quiet shot of Lincoln anguishing at his rather pedestrian looking work desk while his time piece swings back and forth or the more overt tracking shot of Lincoln as he surveys the battlefield at Petersburg.
Contemplative is the word, and there is nothing more that this film asks of its viewers than that they contemplate. This is a daring and immensely welcome thing for an American film to demand of an audience these days, and to be honest, it’s not something I would have expected from Spielberg, especially at this stage in his career. I have mentioned many times before my wife’s admonition that a good film should be a ribsticker, not the empty calories of eye candy, and many of Spielberg’s films have that reputation — Close Encounters, E. T., Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan — but in retrospect, it seems to me that it is some of their moments that stand out as memorable rather than their wholes. Lincoln fills me with quite a different feeling, one that I so rarely find in a film but that is a sign to me of greatness when I do. Lincoln may have its occasional excesses and rare false notes, but as a whole, it is glued all over my ribcage right now. My wife suggested we see it again, soon, and while money and free time are both exceedingly tight of late, we may have to make an exception, if only because I feel now about this film in the same way that I might about a fantabulous magician’s show. I want to go back and figure out how this remarkable, painstakingly accurate illusion was accomplished, for I believe now, after searching my whole life for him, that I have finally found Lincoln in the flickering slants of light in a darkened theater, just as Lincoln seemed to find himself in the flickers of Gardner’s slave images beside a White House fireplace.
Theaters, 5 out of 5 stars