The Great Emancipator: Lincoln Reviewed
, January 23rd, 2013 08:07
Jeremy Meserve reviews Steven Spielberg's biopic of the United States' 16th president
It is often difficult for Americans to perceive their historical traditions through the eyes of foreigners. How will Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln fare in the old country? How will the home of Wilberforce and Palmerston receive this astonishing cinematic portrait of the Great Emancipator? British abolitionists deserve their accolades as progenitors but Parliament has no analogue for the situation faced by Abraham Lincoln. No one in England’s long history has shared similar circumstances with the 16th President of the U.S.
Here in the States, the film has been hugely successful since its November 9th release. Its appearance in the midst of sesquicentennial commemorations of the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation was perfectly timed. Lincoln is worth your two-and-a-half hour attention span not only because it is yet another Spielberg masterpiece but also because it perfectly captures historical events in the US that profoundly affected Great Britain.
What theme is more problematic, more uniquely American, than slavery? Ironically, Lincoln’s untimely death, perhaps the most pivotal moment in American history, can be summarised in the last words of his assassin, “useless…useless.” Lincoln’s murder occurred six days after General Lee’s surrender. A stunned nation had barely comprehended that the war was finally over, much less processed the assassination of their Commander-in-chief. Booth successfully sabotaged Lincoln’s post-war dream, effectively rendering his struggle to free the slaves and restore the Union in vain, at least in the short term. Had he lived, the legacy of slavery in the United States might not have been so lastingly bitter. Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction of the South did not include the harsh punitive measures that Radical Republicans ultimately imposed, nor would he have sanctioned the corruption that marked the Johnson and Grant administrations. The tragedy of Lincoln is the tragedy of the nation, as far as race relations go.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is about the contentious passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the US in the months after Lincoln’s second inauguration. Lincoln wanted to pass the amendment against all odds and instructed his Secretary of State, William Seward, to organize the buying of votes. The tactical dilemma was how to free the slaves before the Confederacy officially surrendered. Lincoln realised, as many did, that the general public would not favor freeing the slaves after peace was restored.
Based on American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), the film is only the small end-slice of that lengthy but absorbing narrative. Screenwriter Tony Kushner’s take on Goodwin’s book spans about four months, from January to April 1865, in which Lincoln was inaugurated a second time, the 13th Amendment was debated and passed, the Civil War ended and the President was assassinated by a white supremacist.
The casting in Lincoln is impeccable. Some of the actors physically resemble their long-dead characters so much that it’s uncanny, especially Day-Lewis as Lincoln. David Straithairn as William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Jackie Haley as Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens are also dead ringers.
Everyone anticipated an Oscar-worthy performance from Day-Lewis, and he does not disappoint. Even so, the bitingly cynical Jones as abolitionist Stevens nearly upstages him. Kushner’s script revives the engimatic Radical Republican, a feat of characterisation that was long overdue. Stevens’ was a powerful voice of excoriating pragmatism. He was a radical liberal, his positions far to the left of the cautiously moderate Lincoln. Lincoln artfully clothed his course of action in political poetry but Stevens never minced words. A British journalist called him “the Robespierre, Danton and Marat of America, all rolled into one.” Jones’s portrayal of the caustic Stevens is nothing short of brilliant.
Some American reviewers have accused Sally Fields of overacting the part of Mary Todd Lincoln. These accusations fail in their knowledge of the character. Mary Lincoln herself was notoriously over-dramatic. Field’s Mary Todd is historically consistent and we acutely sense Lincoln’s weariness in dealing with his wife’s flights of reason despite his genuine concern for her. Consumed with the war and the fate of the country, Lincoln tries but fails to be a conscientious husband and father. He succeeds only with Tad, his youngest and least judgmental son.
The main antagonists in the story are Ohio Representative George Pendleton and New York Representative Fernando Wood who, along with their fellow Democrats, are wholly horrified by what the 13th Amendment portended, the inexorable destruction of slavery. Played by veteran Scottish actor Peter McRobbie, Pendleton and his racial superiority complex are perfectly detestable to our modern notions of equality. Even more loathesome is the dandyish Wood, played by a perfectly coiffed and clean-shaven Lee Pace, whose obstructionist tactics and florid pro-slavery rhetoric will make you want to punch him in the face.
While the book is concerned with the minutiae of Lincoln’s professional and intrapersonal relations, the film aims to characterize the “political genius” of Lincoln alluded to in Goodwin’s subtitle. That the majority of Americans consider him as such is a truism. His detractors yesterday and today do not begrudge the man a superior intellect that he was clearly in command of. However, the lionization of Lincoln, especially in the U.S. can be misleading if not bordering on the hagiographical.
The film contains a few seemingly overly idolatrous moments when attempts to cast Lincoln in the light of a folk hero are cringeworthy for those less susceptible to iconification. The opening scene shows Lincoln discreetly observing the Army of the Ohio readying for the Battle of Wilmington in North Carolina. Lincoln converses and jokes with two black soldiers who have seen action in the regiment. One of the ardent pair, evidently conscious of the sea change in racial equality that is imminent, nonetheless complains about mistreatment of blacks in the army to which Lincoln acknowledges but does not answer. Two whites, fresh enlistees, then fawningly approach the President and begin to recite the Gettysburg Address. When they are called to form regiment they hurriedly leave off the last paragraph of their recitation. The blacks turn to leave but before they fade out of the shot, the one dissatisfied black soldier turns to Lincoln and delivers the rest of the famous address word for word.
It is a predictable scene as written but still poignantly believable even when laden with utilitarian consequentialism. Sentimental scenes that glorify Lincoln’s perceived abhorrence of slavery and racial tolerance somehow win us over because the level of performance is utterly transporting. The righteousness implied in freeing the slaves with the 13th Amendment is felt as a visceral truth. Life as Art or Art as Life ethics be damned, and Day-Lewis is simply stunning as Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln succeeds on a number of different levels, but perhaps most importantly the film distills the pith of Goodwin’s book in that the humble yet tenacious Kentuckian who became President was first and foremost a gifted storyteller and humorist. Transcending all sectional boundaries, our best storytellers are those who appeal to the imagination and our capacity for catharsis. Lincoln’s “extraordinary gift” for storytelling naturally drew people towards him. His listeners didn’t have the sense that Lincoln was huckstering them. He was thoroughly “a man of the people”. Realizing his gift’s potential, he learned to defuse tense situations and endear himself to his rivals with innumerable anecdotes from his days as a flat-boat man, a surveyor, postmaster and traveling lawyer on the circuit. Thus, the currency of Lincoln’s political capital was stories told with the adroit mastery of one who had committed them to memory since he was a toddler. At almost 800 pages, Team of Rivals contains hundreds of instances where the author clearly emphasizes this singularly crucial component of Lincoln’s character. Spielberg and Kushner keenly interpret Goodwin’s message and, as expected, Day Lewis delivers eerily perfect performances of what we can only surmise Lincoln was really like, even down to the timbre of his voice. The film’s most awe-inspiring moments capture Lincoln’s talent for disarming his colleagues and others with clever anecdotes.
More compelling than the idealized Lincoln, the imperfections and limitations of Spielberg’s Lincoln, beset by harrowing decisions in a calamitous time make the myth more appealing even as it is dispelled, for the ultimate impact of his life’s work is more imprinted within the American character than perhaps any other individual.
Jeremy Meserve Archives Consultant Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA
Lincoln is released in cinemas on the 25th of January