There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln in which abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, clearly relishing every moment) stares down his Democratic opponents in the House of Representatives and, clothed in righteous indignation and the audience’s sympathetic moral sentiments 147 years on this side of the 13th Amendment, utters what is meant to be a brutal takedown of all simpering slave-state accommodation:
“Slavery is the only insult to natural law, you fatuous nincompoop!”
That such a childish rejoinder is counted as wit in the logic of the film is bad enough[i]. But as directed toward Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a character of whom the audience knows nothing other than the fact that he is smarmy, and racist, and a Bad Person, well, it’s just downright unsportsmanlike. I think I winced in the theater here, not least because out of 140 purported speaking parts, one line only is needed to expose in miniature what is true of Lincoln as a whole, namely: 1) The audience’s expectations are rarely to be subverted or much complicated—whichever character holds our own collective opinions on race and politics circa-2012, as a general rule, they’re the ones to back; 2) some very complicated and committed historical figures will be flattened into gruesome caricatures of themselves; and—the biggest blemish in what is sometimes, despite what you have read so far, an astonishingly wonderful film—3) in a movie ostensibly about compromise, Spielberg (and his scribe, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner) undercut their argument with this troubling fact: the good guys get all the lines.
This is not to say that the whole thing isn’t a rollicking good time. The film takes us through the fraught passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, whereby the twin goals of abolishing slavery and ending the enormous suffering of the Civil War come into unhappy conflict for the president, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). Both are morally imperative goals to pursue, in Lincoln’s view, but the nuance is fiendish. End the war too soon and the political will to scour the nation of its original sin will vanish; abolish slavery and any chance of peaceful reconciliation with the rebellious states evaporates. That each half of this political conundrum is championed by the opposing conservative and extremist factions within Lincoln’s own party provides much of the fuel driving the narrative. The gamesmanship, the backroom dealings, the tortured political calculations—rarely has a movie been so successful at making partisan politics so hugely engaging.
But to leave it at that is a luxury Lincoln does not allow itself. As Kushner says in the production notes for the film, “[Spielberg and I] both felt it was incredibly timely, because in this day and age when so many people have lost faith in the idea of governance, it’s a story that shows you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system.”[ii]
Most reviewers have picked up this line, to one extent or another. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir calls Lincoln a throwback to “an era when Hollywood…mainstream entertainments were also meant to edify and inspire.” Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Orr asserts “[it] is a film about the arts of suasion…in short, about politics,” while his colleague, Joshua Zeitz, hopes “President Obama will soon take the opportunity to see Lincoln” to be reminded to use his “immense power” in ways that are “wise.” Time’s Richard Corliss breathlessly recommends the film as an “urgent civics lesson” that “dares to remind American moviegoers that its government can achieve great victories against appalling odds.”
Beyond mere amusement, then, Lincoln is intended (and received) as a lesson in politics, a love letter with an evangelical tinge written to a divided country of red-and-blue states, persuading us that democracy really can save our national soul. Remember, the film asks, when we could get stuff done?
To be successful in this endeavor, Spielberg and Kushner must strike a tricky bargain which plagues all self-consciously democratic art and to which the integrity of the film ultimately stands or falls—how do you give a fair and legitimate accounting of the interests of all parties involved while still elevating the viewer’s gaze to some larger moral purpose or goal? Real balance is demanded in a democracy: between one’s principles and the present possibilities; between one’s opponents and friends; between one’s own interests and the interests of others. Compromise doesn’t work with a stacked deck.
And yet one must admit the dice are hopelessly loaded when confronted with the magnificence of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. For a president who has persisted in the popular imagination mainly as a literary figure, Day-Lewis’ performance amounts to a new canon, a definitive reordering of cultural assumptions. One can already feel his tangential manner of speech and high tenor seeping deeply into the folds of one’s brain, annexing all previous conceptions of our 16th president as surely as one’s childhood imaginings of Frodo have been thoroughly expunged by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.
It is hard to overstate the nature of this accomplishment. Of all presidents, perhaps save George Washington, the tendency to mythologize and inflate is strongest with Lincoln. Even William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield for many years, who knew him as well as any man knew him, called Lincoln the “noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ.” Yet Day-Lewis is able to fashion feet of clay from the alabaster monolith of fable. Here we have a Lincoln who, by all accounts, accurately reflects the paradoxical nature of the historical man—a uniquely American concoction of homespun and highfalutin, prairie lawyer and politician, good humor and gargantuan ruthlessness.[iii]
Witness Lincoln stalking the halls of the White House like a specter at all hours, an insomniac—as the historical record shows—who never took a break, much less a vacation; who sags as he walks beneath the weight of enormous unseen grief; who wraps himself in the consolation of time with his youngest son; who surprises his advisors with parabolic stories of questionable relevance; who was willing to cut the Gordian knot with adamantine willfulness when necessary. This human-scale Lincoln nevertheless maintains a sense of greatness—a greatness that enlarges with his humanity, not diminishes. It is hard to imagine any actor other than Day-Lewis who can take the best scatological joke about George Washington you’re ever likely to hear and a solemn discourse on the moral applications of Euclid and make them not only believable, but essential to the character.
This is all another way of saying, via contraposition, that the towering humanity of Lincoln abides no contenders in Spielberg’s film. Nobody else comes close—not Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), not Mary Todd (Sally Field), not Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), nobody. Day-Lewis is in a color film; everybody else plays black-and-white. His dramatic triumph highlights in chiaroscuro the artistic failures on the part of the director and screenwriter.
Most egregious is the treatment of the Democratic representatives who must be “turned” to vote for the Republican-sponsored legislation. Cartoonish at every turn, these scenes are great fun, with a touch of Mark Twain around them. (At first blush an astute choice, incidentally, as Lincoln himself had something of the famous humorist’s farcical humor. “I don’t like to hear cut and dried sermons,” Lincoln once said, in a sentiment that would’ve surely put a glitter in Sam Clemens’ eye. “No—when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!”) But their slapstick humor and broadly-drawn characterizations, sadly, are at cross purposes with the thematic undertow of the film. In the climactic voting scene near the end, the sound of chattering teeth is half-expected to emanate from the theater’s sound system. One is astonished by the absence of literal knee-knocking on the part of the cowardly turncoat congressmen.
For a film about compromise, this is sorely disappointing. For what, after all, can such a work teach us about the messy business of human community? Narratively speaking, we are back in the days of the Three-Fifths Compromise, where some persons are more so than others. The good guys get all the lines, remember. While this may be flattering for an audience who can accordingly congratulate themselves on holding elevated (and triumphant!) moral principles over rank stupidity and racism, as an artistic device it exerts a dulling effect, robbing the audience of drama and mystery and, well, properly democratic feeling.
Illustrative of this is a detail which Spielberg lets jangle loose in an interview with 60 Minutes. As the final voting call for the abolition of slavery rolls through the House name by name, astute observers will note that several of the Democratic naysayers have had their names changed, “in deference,” according to the director, “to the families.”[iv] Spurious as this may sound—does anybody’s family really care after 147 years?—it nevertheless shows a curious truth. From an artistic perspective, Spielberg’s Lincoln does not afford its malcontents the dignity of reality—that is, the dignity of acknowledging even one’s sins—which is necessary for a true accounting of a man, and thus for true democracy.
A movie about accommodation is unaccommodating in its generosity toward humanizing Lincoln at the expense of everyone else. It’s a shame Spielberg didn’t follow the grain of his themes and make a truly epic film about one of the most grown-up figures—and moments—in American history.
[i] In contrast, take the following from the Congressional Globeof January 11, 1865as instructive. On this day a gentlemanly antiwar congressman named George Pendleton took the floor in the House of Representatives. A Democrat representing the first district of Ohio, Mr. Pendleton advocated for the peaceful reunification of the splintered Union by accommodating to the Confederate demands regarding slavery. His argument was a designedly academic one, adhering to a strict constructivist interpretation of the Constitution and arguing for the sovereignty of each State regarding the status of its own citizens—in essence, his position was such that certain amendments to the Constitution would be invalid and illegal if they went beyond the powers expressly provided within or against the character of the Constitution as a whole.
Thaddeus Stevens was having none of it:
Mr. STEVENS: Suppose that three fourths of the States now ratify an amendment while the remaining fourth do not, are the States refusing to ratify still members of the Union?
Mr. PENDLETON: That will depend on the character of the amendment, and whether it is in pursuance of the authority granted.
Mr. STEVENS: If the amendment should be adopted by three fourths of the States, while the other fourth refuse to ratify it, do the non-agreeing States go out of the Union or remain in it?
Mr. PENDLETON: If the amendment be without the scope of the power granted, legally they remain in the Union, and the other States go out. [Laughter]
This is wit, though admittedly less suitable for the big screen. Note the subtlety with which Stevens disembowels his opponent—a trap laid with such gossamer threads his opponent doesn’t realize until he springs it himself. By placing the reductio ad absurdm—of States unwittingly voting themselves out of the Union—into Pendleton’s own mouth, Stevens thoroughly discredits the argument with such force that everyone in the Chamber sees it for what it is, and cachinnates accordingly, as the transcript shows.
[iii] Which has always been evidenced to me, at least, by the chilly Second Inaugural, an address the likes of which had never been seen before in America and, very probably, never will be again. It is remarkable to consider how closely this speech parallels John Brown’s final words in the court that would sentence him to death and furthermore, how closely Lincoln hews—near the end of his life—to the viewpoint expressed by Brown on December 2, the morning he was hanged: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”