LINCOLN: A Modern Hero
“As a nation we began by declaring that all men are created equal. We now read that practically to say all men are created equal—except Negroes. Soon, it will say all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics. When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty. To Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” – Abraham Lincoln
As you’ve might have guessed by this point, I’m something of a history nerd. And history nerds tend to ruffle a bit at the assumption that history is dull, preachy, or worse: irrelevant. This is almost certainly due to the fact that all of us hated our freshman year history teachers, only to hate our sophomore history teachers even more, and third period American history was more or less along the lines of Chinese water torture.
Which is totally unfair.
As the passion, fervor, and gut-wrenching agony of the last two weeks of this Election year proved, history in the making makes for tremendously entertaining theatre. Why on earth wouldn’t we think that the moments recorded in our history textbooks were any less passionate, fervent, agonizing. I’m sorry if you failed your history test in 9th grade about the Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t hate. It was awesome. And infinitely more important than any of the issues wrangled over in the recent election, and carried out in a house every bit as divided and contentious as ours is today. The past, you see, is more modern than you think—those funny wigs and funny hats are mere novelties.
Which is why Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic, works– even when it doesn’t work, it works.
The film is atypical Spielberg. Oh sure, there’s plenty of the light and shadow magickery that is his hallmark (one feels that Lincoln’s striking profile was somehow destined to be filmed in a Spielberg silhouette) but in a recent Q&A, Spielberg admitted his formula of filmmaking is “predictable” and this film was a departure from his very dependable brand of storytelling. The reason, according to Spielberg, is that he found it necessary to build the film around the characters and not the other way around. And so we have an admittedly languorous film, Spielberg explaining that if a character needed to breathe, he allowed him to breathe.
This patience is simply not exercised these days. Few filmmakers trust the audience to, not only have the attention span for real-life exchanges, but the appetite for it. Like Lincoln, Spielberg trusts the audience’s intellect. He does not pander or dumb-down; he takes his time and, ultimately, makes his point. For this film, is not about spectacle. It is certainly beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski: artfully lit to emphasize the earthy, swarthy browns and blues that saturated the palette of 1860s America. It is also, in fact, an intelligent character study, penned by Tony Kushner it is an actor’s dream of a film; its power lying completely in performance.
Lincoln was a childhood hero of mine, just like he’s been to countless millions of kids. I was about 14 when Herbert Donald’s Lincoln was published and I tore it apart, cover to cover. And then, of course, there was Henry Fonda’s performance in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln which, for the rest of my life, became my Lincoln. Spielberg said in a recent Q&A, that everyone has “their” Lincoln and think that “their” Lincoln is the real Lincoln. Henry Fonda will still probably always be “my” Lincoln…but I know, deeply, that Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is the closest we will probably ever come to knowing, seeing, and hearing, the man.
Day-Lewis melts away the marble and sweeps away the cobwebs of history. This. Is. A. Man. A living, breathing, and very imperfect human being. Daniel Day Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a patient man, but has a volatile temper. He’s a devoted father, but not without daddy issues of his own. He wants to love his wife, but can’t love her the way she needs him to. He is a moral man, but … he’s also a politician. Which means for all his morality, he is not above fudging said morals to get his way. Honest Abe is indeed, morally pure— but not exactly honest.
Lincoln has perhaps the most fascinating face ever photographed. It has been recently determined that early daguerreotype photography contains more detail than even our super sophisticated digital SLRs. This technology serves Lincoln well, for that stoic face is, on close examination, infinitely expressive. One can’t begin to count the number of lines and creases and folds on his face, and yet for all his weathered, haggardly appearance, there is a palpable don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-the-president undercurrent lingering in those deep set eyes. This is a face belonging to a man entirely unlike all other men, and therefore capable of anything. And that mysterious, Mona Lisa shadow of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth suggests he knows it.
And we, the audience, see him as he almost certainly was. A man of awkward build and height, his 6 foot 4 frame, strikingly tall in the mid-19th century, surely seemed even more imposing with his gaunt frame and 8-inch high stovepipe hat. This gives him an off-balance, wobbly gait; making the ability to walk a straight line something of a struggle. He also listens. And he speaks. Oh boy, does he ever speak. In a high, reedy voice, cracked with age and beaten by years of ‘melancholy,’ that unsettles the audience. It has none of the deep, baritone register we’ve come to expect from Lincoln. This is the voice of a man weary with the weight of the country resting on his slumped shoulders, but the “immense power” and defiant resolve to save his Union.
This is Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of him.
Day-Lewis is, of course, one of the finest actors of this, or any, generation. And just as Lincoln was the moral glue that held the country together, Day-Lewis is the film’s anchor. Oh sure, other performances in the film are more exciting and amusing (Tommy Lee Jones WILL get an Oscar nod for this for his acerbic abolitionist. James Spader as a whisky loving lobbyist won’t, but should). But Day-Lewis’ embodiment of Lincoln is what gives this film heart. Even when he is offscreen, his formidable shadow is still present, making it possible for some of the film’s best scenes to take place without him. Namely, the chaotic House of Representatives, which here resembles amateur night at the Apollo. Congress and the lobbyists steal the show. But what makes them tick is the fact of Lincoln.
The film itself covers a mere slice of Lincoln’s history: his fight to pass the 13th Amendment through Congress, a feat that would end slavery in the United States and, more to Lincoln’s point, the Civil War. It’s an Alice Through The Looking Glass world in which the Democrats are, as Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stephens says, a bastardized version of Andrew Jackson’s party and are hell-bent against the passing of the Amendment, vehement against the concept of race equality. Lincoln’s Republican Party, by contrast, is home to the liberals: the “radical” freedom fighters determined to abolish slavery. Not only is the President in a race against time to end the slavery issue and thereby save the Union, he has a highly unstable wife to deal with, a difficult relationship with his eldest son, a cabinet that doesn’t trust him, and a House of Representatives that disrespects him.
This Lincoln is a knee-slapping spinner of bawdy tall tales (I never thought I’d hear the words “George Washington”, “outhouse”, and “shit” in the same sentence), and is neither ashamed nor dismissive of his humble backwoods roots. This professed simplicity belies his exceptional intelligence, a perfect and powerful political tool as he consistently takes his opponents by angry surprise with a royal flush of logic. We may think our society immeasurably more sophisticated with infinitely more complicated issues than the more “black and white” moral issues of Civil War America. But what could be more complicated than fighting to push a necessary moral cause upon a country that wants no such cause pushed upon them in order to unite a people torn apart by hatred? Not only is Lincoln the right man for the job, he is the only man for the job. Perhaps this is why we love this man: Heroes make the impossible possible in the most impossible of circumstances. And the best heroes, the ones that last, are psychologically complex and certainly far from guileless. And to this extent, Lincoln is a hero.
To quote Walt Whitman, spoken during the height of the Civil War: “I do not dwell with his supposed failures; he has shown an almost supernatural tact of keeping this ship afloat at all. I more and more rely upon his idiomatic Western genius.”
This is not Spielberg’s best film, and it is far from perfect– biopics rarely are. But it succeeds where it needs to, namely, in making us care deeply about this most extraordinary man, and even more about his cause. The fact of both which make it possible for us to be who we are today.
In Spielberg’s hands, the legend is preserved and is carried forward, for the ages.