Wednesday, 27 February 2013


NOTE: This is the first of a two-part essay. The second part, dealing with issues of fact and depiction of history, will appear here soon.

When I saw the trailer for Lincoln, my immediate thought was that I was watching the animatronic President Lincoln I saw at Disneyland in Anaheim, and since Steven Spielberg is, as I have pointed out before, very much in the mold of the 1950s Disney movies he grew up watching, I was expecting a worthy, if not wooden, film, portraying a worthy if not wooden President. The fact is, although Lincoln is indeed worthy, it is very much not wooden. It does begin, however, as if determined to present that animatronic Lincoln, a robotic figure who sits and listens to a lecture from a black soldier, whose argument about equality is virtually the only time in the film a speech makes no effort to sound like the 19th century. It thought of a similar argument over soldiers' pay in Glory, which made less effort to sound period, but managed to convey the point in more period fashion. Then two boys from Gettysburg start reciting the Address, which is finished by the black soldier. Although it's moving, it does not ring true, indeed it smacks of what I'd call 'anachro-correctness', the desire to give characters in the past the attitudes of the present. With Spielberg, this instinct has manifested itself in hammer-heavy codas to films like Saving Private Ryan, trying to drive the point home to the contemporary audience. Fortunately for the film, and the audience, this approach ceases with that scene, and there is no coda. The other important thing in this scene, however, is the way the two Gettysburg boys are presented as just that, boys. They are kids with their idol, and as such they are stand-ins for us, in the Speilberg universe.

Within the framework of that universe, however, Lincoln makes a strong effort at presenting a nuanced political argument about Lincoln's battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. Although it's passed the Senate, it has failed once already in the House of Representatives, where he has only a small majority, and Constitutional Amendments require a two-thirds vote. Besides trying to end a war and put the nation back together, Lincoln is also trying to keep his family together; his wife Mary still mourns the loss of their middle son; she ignores the youngest, and dotes on their oldest, who now wants to quit Harvard and join the Army. Keeping families together has always been a centerpiece of Spielberg's films.

The intimate story parallels the first, with Lincoln in a dilemma of principle regarding the war, and another about how to raise his eldest son. The film does well dealing with the nuances of Lincoln's bigger battles: he does not want to wait for the bigger majority he would have when the new House, swept in with his re-election in 1864, comes to Washington. He worries that moves to peace would lessen the cause of anti-slavery, concessions could be made to the South to end the war and even reform the Union, and he knows a bill passed by this more balanced House would carry more weight with the public, as well as sending a message to the South about the impossibility of a negotiated settlement as opposed to a surrender. But Lincoln needs to placate both wings of his own Republican party, the radical abolitionists and those, particularly from Border states, looking for peace. Meanwhile, he needs Democratic votes as well. And he knows he has not won the hearts and minds of the voters on the issue of racial equality.

I found this part of the story engrossing, perhaps because I know the background; it was accused by many of being 'boring' and slowing down the film. But if it isn't totally successful, it's more because it can't decide whether it's trying to be The West Wing or Advise And Consent, and so winds up being neither. But what it actually does is use the space between those modes, and use its parallel stories, to tell the story of Lincoln's whole career through the microcosm of this one political battle. Thus it can't be West Wing because there is no back-chat to speak of; there is only one story, Lincoln's, and the literal pursuit of wavering votes, by bribery or whatever means, is played more for comedy than anything else. Tommy Lee Jones, as the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who was the most powerful man in the House, is less a foil for Lincoln than a counter-balance; a true-believer who needs to learn Lincoln's style of accommodation. The actual political in-fighting is portrayed more through the chaos of the House chamber, and that much is done well, but the real meat of the story is when it comes down to Lincoln with his adversaries, where his full arsenal of persuasion and intimidation is brought into play. In fact the most powerful moment in the film may be when Lincoln slams his fists on a table and elucidates his power. But this placing of Lincoln in the centre of everything (except Stevens' own dilemma) means that, apart from highlights of debates, the real political infighting must be in the background.

At home, we often see Lincoln in shadows, as a silhouette, a gossamer figure behind curtains. The most truly Spielberg moment comes when Lincoln finds his youngest son Tad asleep in front of the fire, tin soldiers spread across a War Department map. It's shot from the child's eye, gazing way up at Lincoln, before Lincoln drops down to Tad's level on the floor. It again places the audience into the position of the child. This is the constant strain in Spielberg's work, between the childlike audience point of view, and the serious, usually masculine work at hand in the films. It's why the soldiers together on the march bits of Private Ryan didn't work at all; it's hard for him to do male bonding on an equal basis, whereas he can show the excitement and indeed horror of battle deftly. And that's why Lincoln's political machinations don't measure up to, for example, Advise and Consent, because we're not watching equals at play.

I've written before that the film-maker Spielberg most resembles is Robert Stevenson, best-remembered today for Jane Eyre and a series of Disney comedies in the Sixties, but who hit his Disney peak with Old Yeller and Johnny Tremaine in 1957 (for purposes of this film it might be interesting to revisit Stevenson's Thirties version of King Solomon's Mines, with Paul Robeson in a key role excised from later versions). Disney's 50s, with films like the above and TV series like Davy Crockett or Swamp Fox, were all about 'printing the legend' and telling history as adventure, from a child's point of view, but with an adult story line. It's also crucial that Lincoln's most direct approach to the issue of slavery itself comes with Tad looking at photographs of slaves, which leads him to ask the black people he knows about it, and thus give the audience reassurance that slavery was indeed wrong, and horrible.This elementary 'Disney' approach means Spielberg can play on Lincoln's legend while deconstructing, as it were, the man himself. With Lincoln, I think Spielberg is appropriating John Ford, and not just because Daniel Day-Lewis' performance is far closer to Henry Fonda's in Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln than, say, to Raymond Massey's (who also played John Brown—an interesting daily double of lead roles). And it's the performance by Lewis that defines the film, and it is a remarkable one.

Lewis inhabits the character physically, his gait and posture telling us all we need to know about the strain he is under. Although his voice at times seems to hint at Walter Brennan in the Thirties, it strikes the key of authenticity not only in time but in terms of the man himself. It lacks bombast, but is full of conviction, it is the voice of persuasion, of self-deprecation; this is the Lincoln as he was portrayed in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team Of Rivals (of which more in part II) who so inspired Barack Obama. And it can never resist humour, especially when used tactically. Few of the rest of the cast are given huge moments, apart from Jones and Sally Field as Mrs Lincoln. Field's too old, just as Lewis is too young, for their roles, and it creates some awkward moments; you get the sense that Fields imbues the character with a bit too much of her own patented hysteria, but she is strikingly effective. David Strathairn seems also to inhabit Secretary of State Seward, relegated to a literally supporting role. There are excellent cameos by Waylon Goggins, as a bribed Democrat, and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Stephens, but in general the cast puts on their whiskers or ties up their bustles and is convincing.

Jones' role is the most problematic. It is significant that he is presented in two 'reveals', introduced by the device of seeing the Congressmen reporting to him, and then, at the end, having his 'housekeeper' revealed to be in bed with him, as a spouse. He gets the biggest decision moment, when he has to speak about equality, and his equivocation is a thing of brilliance—the one moment when the film achieves its synthesis of West Wing and Advise and Consent. Beyond that, however, his iron control over his half of the House is expressed mostly in elaborate putdowns. The House vote itself is presented with score-keeping as clunky as anything I've seen since the makers of Red Dragon decided Hannibal Lecter would need to translate 'ris de veau' in his cookbook for the benefit of the audience, and the misrepresentation in the opening of the roll call is something I will discuss in part II of this essay.

I mentioned at the start that I feared an animatronic Lincoln, and I feared a Spielberg coda that would drive home his point. As the movie reaches the end, we come close. Lee's surrender at Appomattox presents us with our second animatronic moment: when Jarred Harris' rather too clean Grant doffs his hat, and Lee creakingly replies in kind. But it passes quickly. We see Robert Lincoln in uniform as part of Grant's staff—he looks remarkably like his little brother's soldier suit, and I wondered if, in the middle of the horror, Spielberg was still making a point, as with Tad and his war games in front of the fire, about war being a child's thing. And then, when Lincoln is shot, Spielberg chooses to give us the news while Tad is at another theatre. This is true, but I'm sure part of the reason was to wrong-foot the audience, who were probably expecting John Wilkes Booth and 'sic semper tyrannus'.

But to me it was crucial the play Tad Lincoln saw that night was Aladdin...and Spielberg ends us with a child's moment, a fairy story, interrupted by a nightmare of losing a parent. It is a purely Spielberg reaction—and, in a movie that doesn't really 'print the legend', brings it back to that 1950s moment. As an historical epic I like it better than Private Ryan or Schindler's List. This year's Oscar nominees were better, as a group, than last year's, but I still struggle to find one that jumps out as 'best' or 'great'. It may be simply the academy is tired of the elegaic, the John Williams' score's borrowing from Copland and Ken Burns's documentary. It might be that Lincoln didn't win best film because it was up against films approaching, to some extent, our present condition—and although I kept seeing hints of the Tea Party, and hints about our continuing racial divide, I think it lived up to its forecast of worthiness, and kept away from controversy. Which might have made it more relevant, but would have made it less Spielberg.

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