Last night Charles and I watched the 2012 Steven Spielberg biopic Lincoln, not only because it had just come out on DVD the day before but also I thought it would make an interesting counterpoint to the film The Conspirator from 2010, which we had also just watched. Lincoln is a genuinely moving and historically fascinating film that was obviously aspiring to Greatness with a capital G. As a result, it’s a masterly piece of work but it also feels stiff, more like an historical pageant than a real movie — obviously a major temptation in taking on a subject like Lincoln, who for all the controversy that swirls around him in the film itself has become America’s closest equivalent to a secular saint, prayed to and invoked for all manner of causes, including ones that didn’t exist in his day and for which people really have to reach into the back rooms of Lincolniana in an attempt to define what he would have done about them if he’d been around when they were live issues. As most people know by now, Lincoln takes 2 ½ hours to tell a story that encompasses only the final three months of Lincoln’s life, and particularly his struggle in January 1865 to get the House of Representatives — in which Lincoln’s Republican Party had a majority but lacked the two-thirds needed to get a constitutional amendment through and submitted to the states for ratification — to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. If there’s one great and important historical lesson in this film, it is to be reminded of how totally slavery had been woven into the fabric of America’s historical experience as a nation to that time, to the point where even with the Civil War basically won by the Union side (Ulysses S. Grant’s and George Sherman’s 1864 campaigns had essentially broken the Confederate military resistance and it was all over but the bloody mopping-up, much the way World War II in Europe was essentially over when the Allies pulled together and won the Battle of the Bulge, even though the fighting — and the killing, and the dying — continued for a few months after that), the abolition of slavery was still highly controversial and by no means a sure thing.
Lincoln’s own evolution (to use a word from the vocabulary of the current President) on the slavery issue is well known: though he was always morally opposed to slavery at some level, in 1861 he was willing to offer the Southern states a so-called “unamendable amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee the “peculiar institution” in the existing slave states forever (as I noted in my comments on The Conspirator, Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson, who isn’t depicted at all in Lincoln but is a key character in the earlier film, was Lincoln’s choice as what would today be called a back-channel negotiator to offer the South this deal). In August 1862 he wrote his famous letter to Horace Greeley saying that his principal object in fighting the war was to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery — “If I could preserve the union by freeing all the slaves, I would do that; if I could preserve the union by keeping them in bondage, I would do that; if I could preserve it by freeing some of them and leaving others alone, I would do that” — which has been cited by progressive historians as evidence that Lincoln really didn’t give a damn about slavery. In fact it was a classic bit of disinformation; when Lincoln wrote that letter he had the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sitting in his desk drawer, and he was only waiting for the Union armies to win a convincing enough victory on the battlefield to give it both military and political credibility — which happened at Antietam Creek in September 1862. The script for Lincoln shows Lincoln recalling his self-questioning over whether he had the power to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and his decision that he did, but that to justify it legally he had to declare that the slaves were “property” and thereby slaves owned by rebel masters were legitimately subject to confiscation for military purposes.
The Lincoln drawn in this movie has clearly by January 1865 decided that abolition of slavery is a bottom-line condition for ending the war, and to that end he has a peace delegation from the Confederacy headed by Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) secretly stopped at the borders of Washington, partly because Lincoln throughout the war didn’t want to give the Confederacy credibility as a “nation” by negotiating with it, and partly because Lincoln fears a war-weary population will be willing to compromise and let the South keep its slaves in exchange for an end to the war. Lincoln was a disappointment both at the box office and with the Academy — it got 12 nominations, more than any other film of its year, but won just two awards, Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln (making him the first male to win three Academy Awards for acting in leading roles; earlier Jack Nicholson had won three but one of his was in the Supporting Actor category) and Best Achievement in Production Design for Rick Carter and set decorator Jim Erickson — and I suspect it was because the film was clearly Trying So Hard. It was largely inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, which was about Lincoln’s clashes with his Cabinet members, most notably Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who was basically Hillary Clinton to Lincoln’s Barack Obama: in 1860 Seward had been the favorite of the power players in the Republican Party to win the nomination until Lincoln’s insurgent campaign won him the nomination instead — and after he won Lincoln appointed his Establishment rival to the same Cabinet post to which Obama a century and a half later appointed his. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln didn’t fill his administration with yes-men; he wanted a healthy dose of diverse opinions around him and he didn’t feel threatened when Cabinet members or Presidential staffers disagreed with him. He also had a penchant for interrupting high-powered political discussions with those interminable cracker-barrel anecdotes that for the rest of the 19th and well into the 20th century would be collected into The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln books but must have been tiresome for his original audiences to sit through, especially when Lincoln rambled through them and left them at sea as to what relevance he thought they had to the issue at hand: in one of the most powerful moments in the film Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) chews him out as he launches into one of his twisted parables and says, “You’re going to tell one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!”
Lincoln is a film mainly about the political compromises that had to be made to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed, and in particular the outright corruption involved in securing the 20 Democratic votes needed: Lincoln and Seward hired a man named W. N. Bilbo (James Spader) — apparently a composite of several real historical figures rather than a really existing person of the period — to offer lame-duck Democrats patronage jobs in exchange for their “yes” votes on the Amendment. The offers shade over into outright bribery at times — Lincoln and Seward had given Bilbo and his two associates a kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink indication that offering cash bribes was not O.K. but offering jobs was — something Lincoln would have been all too familiar with because he got the Republican Presidential nomination in the first place through a similarly corrupt deal. On the first ballot at the 1860 convention Seward placed first, Lincoln second and Simon Cameron third; then Cameron offered to withdraw and throw his votes to Lincoln but only if Lincoln appointed him Secretary of War — and Cameron immediately used the War Department to reward his friends in the business community with fat contracts and ran such a lousy operation that in early 1862 Lincoln fired him and replaced him with Stanton. Stanton did such a great job cleaning house at the War Department and making sure the Union armies actually got the supplies the government was paying for that quite a few people at the time believed that he had been the decisive leader in winning the war — which explains the near-religious fervor with which Congressional Republicans defended him when Andrew Johnson tried to fire him in 1868, leading to Johnson’s impeachment and near-removal from office. The script by Tony Kushner (who as an “out” socialist as well as a Gay man is an intriguing choice for a Lincoln biopic) goes out of its way to showcase the ironic contrast between the nobility of Lincoln’s ends and the sordidness of his means — too much so for some critics, including Thomas Frank, who in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine (which was founded in 1850 and is therefore one of the few currently existing periodicals that was around during Lincoln’s lifetime) blasted the movie (and the Kearns Goodwin book on which it was at least partially based) in these terms [http://harpers.org/archive/2013/02/team-america/
[T]he movie Spielberg actually made goes well beyond justifying compromise: it justifies corruption. Lincoln and his men, as they are depicted here, do not merely buttonhole and persuade and deceive. They buy votes outright with promises of patronage jobs and (it is strongly suggested) cash bribes. The noblest law imaginable is put over by the most degraded means. As the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, is credited with having said after the amendment was finally approved: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens. The great lesson we are meant to take from his career is that idealists must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective. Lobbyists, on the other hand, are a class of people the movie seems at pains to rehabilitate. Spielberg gives us a raffish trio of such men, hired for the occasion by William Seward, and they get the legislative job done by throwing money around, buying off loose votes — the usual. They huddle with the holy Lincoln himself to talk strategy, and in a climactic scene, Spielberg shows us that a worldly lobbyist can work wonders while a public servant dithers about legalisms. Happy banjo-and-fiddle music starts up whenever they are on-screen — drinking, playing cards, dangling lucrative job offers — because, after all, who doesn’t love a boodle-bundling gang of scamps?
The scene Thomas Frank is referring to when he says “the movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens” occurs when the Democrats who are fighting the amendment decide that one way to peel off enough votes to kill it is to goad Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) into an outburst on the House floor in which he will defend full equality for Black people — thereby associating the Amendment with a radical program most Congressmembers, including most Republicans, would be horrified by. At least one Democrat in the Congressional debate uses a slippery-slope argument to say that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment will lead inevitably to Blacks getting the vote, and then (even more horrifying) to women getting the vote — and once again it’s nice to be reminded that ideas we think of as commonplace and part of the status quo were once viciously attacked and regarded as dangerous “fringe” ideas by mainstream opinion-makers. Stevens bites his tongue — the lines that form on Tommy Lee Jones’ face as he registers his discomfort are a marvelous bit of silent acting — and says he’s for “legal equality only” for African-Americans, thereby disappointing the Black people watching the debate in the gallery — including a Black war widow whom, we later find out, is also Stevens’ mistress (and it’s a measure of how much lingering racism there still is in this country that the sight of them in bed together, carefully set up by Spielberg as a surprise, is still discomfiting even 46 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the bans on interracial marriage, and even now that the U.S. President is an African-American from a mixed-race relationship). He later explains to his Radical Republican colleagues that he had to make that public compromise in order to ensure passage of the Amendment, without which any level of equality for African-Americans would remain a pipe dream. (Thaddeus Stevens is one of my personal heroes in American history and I wish someone would make a movie about him sometime.)
Of course, what the movie leaves out — and what would be a more defensible criticism of it from a progressive point of view than the one Thomas Frank made above — was that the only way the Thirteenth Amendment came even close to passage was as the result of decades of anti-slavery agitation by abolitionists who were murdered, beaten, reviled and subjected to a level of public abuse that makes anything modern-day American Leftists have had to go through seem trivial by comparison. As I wrote when I reviewed the recent PBS-TV series The Abolitionists — which one could argue was essentially the “prequel” to Lincoln, the depiction of how a sufficiently dedicated and perseverant movement for social change rewrites the limits of mainstream thought and thereby changes history:
“[T]he abolitionist movement has provided a template for virtually every social-change movement that has followed it in America. Abolitionism begat first-wave feminism — the movement for women’s suffrage was started by women abolitionists who openly questioned why they were being made second-class participants in a movement that was supposedly about human equality — and it also set the pattern for the subsequent movement for African-American civil rights that percolated throughout the 20th century after the unrepentant Southern states (with the connivance of Northern business interests who wanted cheap cotton and steel for the Industrial Revolution) reversed the gains Blacks had made under Reconstruction and installed the system of segregation. In much the same way the revived African-American civil rights movement of the 1960’s begat the anti-Viet Nam war movement, the movements of other people of color for their equality, the second-wave feminist movement (started by women in the 1960’s who wondered why they were being discriminated against inside the Left just as their 1850’s predecessors had wondered why they were being discriminated against as women within the abolitionist movement) and the Queer rights movement.”
Regarding Lincoln as a movie rather than a history lesson or a provoker of debate on just how positive social change (or negative social change, for that matter) gets accomplished, it’s an extraordinarily well-made film. As I’ve written before about Spielberg, there isn’t anyone currently making movies who has as expert a command of the basic grammar of filmmaking — when to hold a scene on screen and when to cut; when to film in long shots and when to move in for close-ups, when to hold the camera steady and when to move it, when to add music to a scene and when to leave it unscored (like most of Spielberg’s films Lincoln has a John Williams score, but the film actually has very little music and much of it is “source” music: the pop songs of the day played by the sorts of ensembles that would have played them then). His great weakness as an artist is his penchant for sentimentality (but given that that was also Charlie Chaplin’s and John Ford’s weakness, he’s at least in good company), which in Lincoln leads him and Kushner to work in a subplot about Lincoln’s son Robert wanting to enlist in the Union army and Lincoln’s horror at the possibility that, having already lost one son (Willie, who died of typhoid fever as a child), he might lose another. I joked, “This has the two big elements Spielberg likes: political significance and cute kids.” The film is shot largely in the past-is-brown mode — it’s hard to expect an historical film made in the U.S. in the early 21st century not to — yet there’s a fascinating difference between its visual appearance and that of The Conspirator. Where The Conspirator’s cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, seemed to be going for the look of the Civil War-era photographs of Alexander Gardner (who’s mentioned briefly in Lincoln as the photographer who shot the plates of slaves Robert Lincoln and his brother Tad study intently), Lincoln’s cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, seemed to be going for the rich, burnished look of oil paintings of the period. There are shots in this film one could readily imagine Rembrandt or some similarly hallowed Old Master painting, and given how much of this film takes place indoors at a time when the only light sources available besides daylight were candles and oil lamps, the past-is-brown look is at least faintly more credible than it is when stories from the more recent past (especially ones set after the widespread use of electric light) are subjected to it.
Lincoln is magnificently acted; Daniel Day-Lewis’s thin, almost nerdy voice seemed almost risible in the clips from the film shown during the Academy Award ceremonies, but in context and over the length of the entire film one quickly gets used to it. Day-Lewis, who apparently is the first British-born actor ever to play Lincoln on screen (though John Drinkwater played him on the Broadway stage in the 1920’s in a play Drinkwater cobbled together from the speeches of the real Lincoln, and the Canadian — and therefore British Commonwealth member —Raymond Massey likewise played Lincoln on both stage and screen), said he adopted that voice on the basis of the descriptions Lincoln’s contemporaries left of his voice being high, thin and reedy — which suggests that out of all the previous actors who’ve made films playing Lincoln, Henry Fonda was probably the best in that department (and it is a real pity that Young Mr. Lincoln director John Ford didn’t or couldn’t follow it up with two more Lincoln films in which Fonda could have extended his characterization into Lincoln’s Presidency and the Civil War). It’s jarring at first but eventually you get used to it. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln (whom her husband for some reason calls “Molly” throughout the film) was also superb, expertly nailing the hints of her subsequent insanity (the real Mary Todd ended up in an insane asylum and Robert Lincoln had to sign the commitment papers for his mother) and her own skepticism, as a Southerner born and bred, whether abolition was really the best course for post-Civil War America. Lincoln is also a “doubles” movie in that, in addition to Daniel Day-Lewis, it features two actors who previously played Lincoln on film themselves: Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, the conservative Republican leader (today “conservative Republican” is redundant and it’s a bit of a shocker to see that in its early days — the Republicans were only nine years old as a national party when this film takes place — there was a very wide ideological variety in the party, far more than there was in the Democratic Party of the day) who insists that Lincoln meet with the Confederate delegation as his price for supporting the Amendment and preventing any Republican defections; and David Strathairn as William Seward.
Lincoln is a genuinely powerful movie, slow and talky but also quite compelling, and it offers at least two significant historical lessons: it shows how even at the end of the Civil War abolition remained a highly controversial and “charged” demand (and the anguished protestations of the Thirteenth Amendment’s opponents that if they were freed Black slaves would take white men’s jobs, then demand civil equality, then the right to vote and ultimately the right to marry white people ring oddly to an audience that knows the history: that for the next century African-Americans pretty much remained second-class citizens and it took another wave of activism almost 100 years after the war for them at least to gain full legal equality, let alone truly equal status with whites) and it also shows the lesson that perturbed Thomas Frank so much but that happens to be true: sometimes even the noblest political causes have to be fought for and won with the foulest of means.