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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

LINCOLN: Making History

This article was originally published on on Tuesday, November 20, 2012:

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln in a movie still from "Lincoln"

The period epic Lincoln may be the least Spielbergian movie that director Steven Spielberg has ever made. Not only is it shot in a remarkably straight-forward way for such a visual stylist, but it is also an unhurried, contemplative, and actually quite subtle film for a director whose recent ventures were War Horse and The Adventures of TinTin. Therefore: never say never. Lincoln is proof that Spielberg can be a great storyteller when he has a great script.

He has that here, thanks to perhaps America's most intellectual and politically passionate playwright, Tony Kushner (Angels in America). The dialogue is a thing of beauty -- both literate and folksy, touching on grand ideas as well as the frailty of ordinary humans -- and it often feels like the thoughtful, opinionated discussions by the Founders in HBO's John Adams. Like that award-sweeping miniseries, which was based on a 650-page biography, Lincolnaccomplishes an impressive feat -- it adapts a door-stopper, in this case Doris Kearns Goodwin's 750-page history Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and winnows out the important and meaningful information. It feels rich and alive but not rambling (the graveyard of lo, so many bio-pics), because it focuses with determined precision on a 4-month period around the end of the Civil War when Lincoln was most actively and most urgently pursuing an amendment to outlaw slavery. At the same time, however, Kushner and Spielberg leaven all the epic stuff about changing America forever with just the right number of small details: Abe's animosity toward wearing leather gloves; how much he spoils his youngest son; the unhappiness of his marriage; and the look in his eye when his aides want decisions and instead he digs in his heels and tells a drawling anecdote.

Though the characterization of the eponymous character, as written by Kushner and performed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is mesmerizing, Lincoln is not just a biography of a president but also a biography of radical change -- a process story about the passage of the 13th Amendment, with some similarities to earlier types of process stories, like Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, though more monumental. It turns out that the steps on the road to the abolition of slavery were anything but noble: there are nowhere near enough votes to pass the amendment, and the imminent end of the Civil War hangs over Lincoln's head, making him fear that those he has freed will be ordered back into servitude if his Emancipation Proclamation has no peacetime equivalent. A point is reached when the only way to secure the needed support for a firm end to slavery is to bribe, threaten, cheat, and deceive. Or in the words of a Lincoln ally near the close of the film: the 13th Amendment was "passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America." (Lincoln was never quite a saint, though, as this article shows.)

The sausage-making of politics is not supposed to be palatable to watch, but in this case, the hijinks are quite delightful. Like the Godfather, or Nixon, honest Abe has to take a back seat so his name cannot be linked to anything unsavory. This leaves lots of the most dynamic work up to supporting players -- who are bursting with vim and vigor, and deliciously well-cast: James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson play three low-lifes hired to extort co-operation from members of Congress; Peter McRobbie and Lee Pace are vociferous Democratic congressmen staunchly opposed to abolition; Tommy Lee Jones is the radical, hotheaded abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens; Michael Stuhlbarg is a timid politician pressured into doing the right thing; and David Strathairn is the reserved, pragmatic Secretary of State, William Seward, who finds Lincoln's plans ill-advised and yet helps make them happen. (His characterization has met with the approval of the director of the historic Seward House, though two significant moments from Seward's relationship with Lincoln were left out of the film.)

President Lincoln is in almost every scene, and with Day-Lewis in the role he quietly dominates each one. But there is also an enveloping tapestry of Republicans, Democrats, abolitionists, soldiers and advisors, all of them struggling through a uniquely turbulent time. Neurotic Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) is there, adoring yet resenting her husband -- she seems to wish she had married a more ordinary man. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln's defiant son, ill-suited for following in his dad's intellectual footsteps. Jared Harris is the Union's dignified General, Ulysses Grant; Hal Holbrook (who has himself played Lincoln on TV) is Francis Blair, a southern Republican with contacts on the Confederate side (he will later turn Democrat); and Jackie Earle Haley is a beady-eyed emissary from the South, registering all the humiliation and anger of his people when he realizes slavery -- the region's economic staple -- is history. 

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln in a movie still from "Lincoln" 

Though there are ignoble actions going on, there's never any doubt in the movie that Lincoln possesses a fundamental morality, that he cares deeply about ending slavery. He is down-to-earth and modest, but we can see the remarkable person underneath: wise, shrewd, humane, and committed. Day-Lewis plays him as an idiosyncratic but consummate leader who listens intently to even the humblest interlocutors, his eyes peering into their souls. He is introduced, in fact, at an army base, meeting with soldiers one-on-one. He is the epitome of gentle courtesy and rapt attention, whether listening to his boisterous pre-pubescent son or to a challenging black soldier who wants to make sure Lincoln understands the issues. Yes, it's a hagiographic depiction, with the crowd-pleasing humor and warmth that fits so comfortably with a holiday season release, but it's also a layered portrait, permitted by the director to flower slowly. Day-Lewis' Lincoln draws people to him simply by thinking, and he manages to radiate energy just sitting and staring at the floor.

And there's a lot of thinking required. The burdens of leadership weigh heavily upon his shoulders. Like Shakespeare's Henry V, he likes to perambulate among the common people because he is faced with an awesome responsibility -- and difficult choices. The long and winding path to abolition hits a pivotal crossroads when ending the Civil War and ending slavery come to be at odds with each other. Lincoln could engage with the South's proffered peace delegation right away, or he could delay so as to have the leverage to pass the amendment. (His public argument having been that the South is fighting to preserve slavery, and that they won't sue for peace unless they see that slavery is no longer an option, he stands to lose the support of those on the fence, those who don't care much whether slavery continues or not.) Lincoln's dilemma becomes even more terrible and personal when his own son enlists -- and Mrs. Lincoln has a meltdown over the prospect of losing a second son in the war.

I had expected Lincoln to glorify militarism more, especially considering Spielberg's recent forayinto the First World War. I think he's consciously trying not to do that: the movie's very first imagery is the silent ugliness of the Civil War, as soldiers from both the North and the South, the Northern regiment being black, wrestle bitterly in a muddy drizzle. But it's not actually a war movie: most of the film seems to take place in wood-paneled drawing rooms and offices, in a dim gloom broken up by cold natural light. The war is referred to frequently but barely glimpsed; it is a merely abstract, background concept. I'm sure Kushner could have conveyed the horrors of the Civil War if that had been the assignment -- besides writing a heart-rending play on Afghanistan, he co-authored the last serious film Spielberg directed, the espionage dramaMunich (an action thriller about a Mossad agent's soul-searching), and he adapted Bertolt Brecht's classic anti-war play Mother Courage in 2006. But that was in fact not the assignment, and at the end of the picture, Lincoln's speech to the troops, about fighting until every last whiplash is avenged, rings in the air.

I realize that not every film that is primarily concerned with social justice takes an unmitigated stance against war. James Cameron's Avatar was vividly against empire, wars of aggression, and brutal subjugation, but it was also solidly in favor of those under attack fighting back. Robert Bolt was arrested protesting nuclear proliferation when he was supposed to be writingLawrence of Arabia -- yet that film ended up celebrating in spectacular scenes the battlefield wins of underdogs.

However, Bolt's screenplay also criticized T.E. Lawrence's power rush and bloodthirstiness. This brings to mind what might have been achieved with a little more ambiguity in Lincoln -- even if only to acknowledge the difference between who Abe became as commander-in-chief during the most lethal conflict American troops have endured, and who he once was as the Congressman from Illinois: the quixotic sponsor of the "Spot Resolutions" in 1847, fiercely challenging expansionist President Polk's efforts to launch the Mexican Wars after the U.S. was allegedly attacked on a "spot' of U.S. soil near the Rio Grande. 

But considering that this is a Spielberg entertainment, if it's not exactly a college-level Ethics seminar we shouldn't actually be surprised. Spielberg does seem much more comfortable with complexity and restraint than he used to be. True, he can't resist beginning and ending the movie on a sentimental note: the movie proper begins after a black soldier marches away from the President, doing him the honor of reciting the closing words of the Gettysburg Address over his shoulder; it ends with a sepia image of Lincoln emerging from a candle flame, addressing a rapt army. But I can live with that. And if you're going to be sentimental about anybody,Lincoln makes a convincing case that the 16th president should be the guy.

Does Lincoln short-change its black characters? Yes, of course -- this is Hollywood. (Though Spielberg has made two previous films on civil rights issues without quite the same oversight:The Color Purple and Amistad.) Apart from a few very minor roles -- soldiers in the Union Army, Thaddeus Stevens' lover, and a male and female servant in the Lincolns' employ -- there are no black roles. The best role for an African-American character is given to David Oyelowo, who has one scene as a proud corporal petitioning Lincoln for the redress of grievances. The second-best is given to Gloria Reuben, who as Mrs. Lincoln's maid Elizabeth gets a moving scene with the president -- the two of them try to envision a post-slavery society, and to be real with each other for the first time.

That's pretty slim pickings, however. There were of course black abolitionists, it wasn't all just achieved by benevolent white men. Though the strategy discussions Kushner has written are fascinating, and the feeling that these characters are poised on the cusp of revolutionary change is intoxicating, a film with such a progressive agenda should have tried harder to show courageous black opinion-makers too. The film is ultimately supposed to be about the equality and freedom of all African-Americans. So it would be nice if they had a chance to get a word or two in edgewise. And after all, the script for Spielberg's Schindler's List did not give all the major speaking roles to Aryans.

And considering the gigantic cast list this movie has, would it have been so hard to use a few of those names to document the role of women in this period? Many women worked very hard, for decades, in the abolition movement, including very famous national figures who also campaigned for universal suffrage. You wouldn't know it from this film, however; the only female characters are domestic servants and Lincoln's emotional wife -- who only yearns from the gallery for the 13th Amendment to pass so her son will return from the war.

However, the film matters on a broader and more immediate level. Spielberg could not have predicted, in 2001 when he first bought the rights to Goodwin's book, the timeliness of the film in terms of both the fight for racial equality in America and the re-election of a president from Illinois. Nor could he have predicted how the level of virulent opposition against Lincoln could echo some of the sentiments, of a similar economic class and geographic region, against a president in 2012: including an online campaign to secede from the Union. He may have begun to get an inkling as the presidential election neared, though, and that may be why he categorically refused to release his movie before November 6th, lest it end up being used as "a political soccer ball."

It seems he was protecting the film, not the election -- although Spielberg is a very large Democratic donor and probably doesn't much like it when the conservative noise machine embraces Lincoln's record at the same time as they eschew his causes. But it is a civil rights movie that comes at a time when the country is again divided over race, and conservatives know it, because they have already started complaining that the movie is on Obama's side, without anything in the film making any such reference. (The griping helps prove that the right-wing blowhards really do recognize in their hearts that their opposition to Obama is racially-based.)

Yet there's more. Lincoln shows how sometimes an amendment to the Constitution is urgently, deeply, inescapably necessary, and it dramatizes part of what goes into getting one passed. (How many movies have actually done that?) A movie about this process is amazingly relevant because a strong and burgeoning movement has blossomed in the U.S. over the last two years, demanding a 28th amendment to get big money out of elections and to preserve the rights of the Constitution for people, not corporations. Several versions of such an amendment have been proposed, not just by grassroots organizations like the Move to Amend coalition, but also by numerous reps on Capitol Hill and in increasing numbers of state and local ballot initiatives and resolutions. The wake-up call was the Citizens United case; it has spawned a flurry of activity around the country to use the amendment process to gain viable campaign finance reform, and even the President has expressed support for an amendment to undo this Court decision.

But in fact, as activists have been pointing out at teach-ins and lectures, the Supreme Court began giving our rights away to corporations over a century and a quarter ago: not just the 1stAmendment right to free speech (which is the best-known of corporate usurpations), but also the rights inherent in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 14th Amendments.

Ironically, the window through which corporations first crawled was the 14th Amendment, part of the trio of "Reconstruction Amendments' launched by Lincoln to liberate slaves and accord them their democratic rights. Instead, the 14th Amendment was hijacked by railroad companies to swell their own power, and we can see the fruition of that today in the corporate state. So it is very fitting that Spielberg's movie appear at this moment in time. It has the potential to galvanize activists -- far beyond anything Spielberg was even conscious of, I'm sure.

In short, Lincoln is on the side of the angels. When the scene we've long been waiting for finally occurs on Capitol Hill, the congressmen cast their votes on the 13th Amendment in the true spirit of a Frank Capra film: each minor politician gets his moment in the sun, grown men cry, and the forces of hatred are defeated. Of course, there's also the business of the assassination to take care of, but Kushner and Spielberg deal with that in such a way it almost seems to round off Lincoln's accomplishments, as if his task list had read: free the slaves, win the war, and achieve martyrdom.

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