Great drama often depends on the playwright’s ability to select (or invent) a fateful day or two in his hero’s life that symbolically sums him up and enables him to enact his very essence as a human being. Sophocles clearly “got it” (he may have even invented it), giving us just one day in Oedipus’s life: that rather unpleasant day he finds out that he has killed his father and married his mother. Adapter Tony Kushner — whose own dramatic masterpiece to date is the long, episodic staged epic Angels in America — reportedly at first did not get it, handing Steven Spielberg an initial screenplay many hundreds of pages long in his effort to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But then, thankfully — perhaps visited by one of his own winged messengers — Kushner did get it, and delivered unto director Steven Spielberg the paragon of dramatic efficacy that is Lincoln. It is a brilliant script, marvelously performed, and destined to take a prominent place in the pantheon of Lincoln films right next to the heretofore greatest of them — John Ford’s classic Young Mr. Lincoln — which it most resembles for its sheer purity of vision. Ford’s Lincoln epitomizes the young Illinois politician’s awe for the Law, which acts as Lincoln’s shield and buckler in defense of the common people (typified by two brothers he defends against a charge of murder). Spielberg’s post-millennial Lincoln epitomizes the more experienced politician’s awe for Justice (as distinguished from the malleable Law), which is to be sought by whatever means necessary and inevitably involves sacrifice, perhaps of one’s very soul. There’s more than a touch of Faust in this script.
Kushner and Spielberg located their moment of Lincolnian self-revelation in a few days in January 1865 when Lincoln had to decide how best to end the war currently bleeding his American family to death and to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in said American family once and for all. The notion that America is a family is by no means a mere conceit for Spielberg and company. It is the controlling metaphor that explains Lincoln’s every action in the film. George Washington is reduced to the mere “birth” Father of his Country. Lincoln is revealed as the true pater familias who saved our House Divided from self-destruction at far-and-away the most perilous moment of our national life.
Spielberg begins his film with scenes of carnage shot in the state where much of it actually took place: Virginia. Soldiers so covered in mud and blood that their races and uniforms are barely distinguishable frantically thrust bayonets into one another, with one man stomping another’s face to drown him in a puddle of the unholy mixture. A voice-over begins a soldier’s understated account of the fighting we are witnessing. A cut to the film’s depicted present (1865) shows the speaker is a black Union soldier talking to — we now realize — his commander-in-chief, who questions him and his fellow soldier, Corporal Ira Clark (David Oyelowo), with fatherly interest. It is our first quick glimpse of Daniel Day-Lewis’s self-effacing President Lincoln, a man who attends to anyone speaking to him with absolute, benign, even divine concentration. Clark takes up the litany of black soldiers’ complaints — unequal pay, no black officers — familiar to filmgoers from Glory (1989). He is a member of what W. E. B. DuBois almost four decades later would call the Talented Tenth, a man so naturally intelligent that he cannot forever remain a “hewer of wood.” And woe to the country that would try to keep him so.
The Black soldiers are interrupted — with no apology and as a matter of course — by a white pair of soldiers, ready to chat with their famous boss. All four soldiers recite snippets of the Gettysburg Address — an improbable but admittedly possible feat of memorization in a pre-electronic era. Spielberg will appropriately bracket his film with Lincoln’s most famous words: Gettysburg Address at the first; Second Inaugural at the last.
The next time we see Lincoln he’ll be dreaming: we (locked into his POV with him) rush forward into swirling clouds of fog and darkness. We are standing, Leonardo (DiCaprio)-like, on the prow of a ship, rushing blindly toward land. It’s our introduction to the inner turmoil of Lincoln’s mind and, at the same time, the outer turmoil of his family life. After quoting Hamlet’s lament “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams,” Lincoln turns to his stormy bed partner Molly (Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln) for help in interpreting his latest dark vision. Their intimacy is immediately established. She is and will remain his savviest and most astute political partner. But there is a serious strain of resentment in their relationship betokened by her line, “You spare me nothing.” This scene sets up Field’s later tour-de-force moment with Day-Lewis when she dares Lincoln to lock her up in an asylum because of her periodic breakdowns (first precipitated by the death of their son Willie). While the sexual desire may be gone from this marriage, their need for one another is still intense and passionate. The fact that each seems trapped in his or her own body — wracked with physical and emotional pain — makes the situation all the more poignant. Both actors seem to be fighting actual physical distress: Field, thoroughly “frumped” and corseted for the part, appears trapped in her small, aging frame; Day-Lewis is forever bending painfully down to her level. One is reminded of the speculations about Lincoln’s possible Marfan’s syndrome. For a man of ordinary height, Day-Lewis plays “tall” with impressive skill. He literally (and painfully) stoops to conquer — his wife and everyone else.
Perhaps the most symbolically suggestive scene in the film follows Lincoln’s scene with his difficult wife. It is his first major scene with Tad, his youngest son (played by Gulliver McGrath). Tad has fallen asleep alone in a room near the fire playing with his collection of slave photos on glass (the baseball cards of his woeful era). Day-Lewis enters the room and lies all the way down on the rug nose-to-nose with his sleeping son. One’s first reaction is of surprise and even alarm. Their position is comparable to that of lovers. But one soon realizes that Lincoln’s intentions are purely paternal. With no words having been exchanged, Tad clambers up on his father’s back, clearly a long-standing habit of many similar lonely nights. “I want to see Willie,” murmurs the half-asleep child, asking for his dead brother. “Willie’s gone,” his father answers, with simplicity and infinite sorrow, bearing the child piggyback to his bed. So, too, we come to realize, Lincoln bears the weight of his warring nation, seeing the “boys” dying on both sides every day as if they were sons of his own.
From the dark and dusty, less-than-regal family quarters of the White House (Mary Todd Lincoln says they were presented with a “pigsty” for their living space), we soon move to Lincoln’s other world, the smoke-filled anterooms, corridors, and offices where Washington’s “sausage” (legislation) really gets made and the war gets waged with the help of the latest technology: the telegraph. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is fond of slipping into rooms unannounced so that he can blurt out his presence in a punch line. We learn from his chats with Seward (David Strathairn) and others that the Republicans (the liberal, pro-blacks party way back then, of course) need 20 votes — to be finagled from lame-duck Democrats by means of proffered patronage — in order to pass the 13th Amendment. Lincoln is quick to correct others’ approximations with exact figures. This is clearly his world, and he is a master of this political game. And requests for favors (patronage) bombard him. Here comes a couple who want their tollbooth privileges back. (Kushner uses this interview to provide succinct, necessary exposition of the political situation.) The toll requestors are all for the 13th Amendment if it will help end the war. But they freely state they will be against helping “niggers” once the war is over. Exposition received and understood. This is why the 13th Amendment must be passed before the South’s now-inevitable surrender.
Lincoln tasks Seward who tasks several comic henchmen to play out this ignoble part of the political escapade. Accompanied by a lively fiddle tune, Mr. Bilbo (an unrecognizable James Spader) and Robert Latham (actor-of-the-moment John Hawkes) literally chase down recalcitrant Democrats, setting up a much later, climactic roll-call vote that has surprising drama and pathos. We see that Lincoln hopes he can be a Henry V, putting away these Falstaffian antics to assume moral rectitude at a later time. He still reveres the Law; it’s just that he now knows about ends and means. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Lincoln has to deal with difficult inferiors (e.g., the Assistant Secretary of the Navy) who cannot abide his folksy story-telling and don’t hesitate to say so; well-meaning civilians such as Preston Blair (a magisterial Hal Holbrook) trying to expedite the peace process by fetching peace representatives from Richmond at the one moment when Lincoln wants the war to last a tiny bit longer; and — last but by no means least — Republican radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones in a wig he himself admits is awful). Stevens demands full equality for blacks at a moment when it is ethically right and historically impossible. We shall later discover, toward the end of the film, the reason for Stevens’s particular passion for equality.
It is ironically Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself, who must convince Stevens to compromise his just insistence on full equality for the far lesser triumph of “equality before the law.” Think Barack Obama giving up the public option to get the Affordable Care Act passed. So Stevens relents on his insistence that blacks are full equals — perhaps at the peril of his soul.
But as vital as it is that Stevens accept this both baleful (from a purist’s perspective) and necessary (from a pragmatist’s) measure, it is equally important that Lincoln not compromise on his decision to push through the 13th Amendment, even for the sake of a possibly earlier peace. The legalistic “lie” Lincoln tells the Congress (that the Southern peace delegates are not in DC when they are actually a few hours away in a boat on the James) reminds one of Clinton’s dodge “I did not have sex with that woman!” (If one understands “sex” to mean intercourse, he may well have been telling a version of the truth.) Similar tempora, similar mores!
To make Lincoln’s dilemma (peace now with slavery or peace later without it) even more Solomonic, his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looking a bit time-warped) is dying to become a soldier himself, which threatens to kill his mother with worry. In his efforts to dissuade his son from enlisting, Lincoln takes him to an army hospital. Robert sees through the ploy immediately but is still caught up in the pathos of the scene. A through-the-hospital -doorway shot shows him sitting in the carriage waiting in a position that unconsciously echoes the soldiers’ permanent sitting positions because they are all amputees. When Robert disembarks from the carriage to follow a covered cart leaking blood and water, we soon see the horror he does: a pit filled and brimming over with severed arms and legs. It’s a glimpse of our American Auschwitz, with the added horror of the carnage being self-inflicted.
Spielberg and Day-Lewis convincingly portray Lincoln’s messianic moments by showing his Christ-like regard for all the people he encounters. As part of his intensely physical take on his character, Day-Lewis kneels a lot in the film — tending fires in fireplaces, polishing his own shoes. When he stoops to polish his shoes, one is reminded of the line given by the militant black corporal Ira Clark in the second scene of the film: “I’m allergic to bootblack, and I can’t cut hair.” Clark is, of course, declaring his unwillingness to assume the traditional roles relegated to blacks — even free blacks — in America. By polishing his own shoes and refusing to wear the kidskin gloves his wife wants him to wear, Lincoln is showing himself to be a willing substitute for Clark in doing the humblest of tasks. Yet this same Lincoln, our Man of Sorrows, can bellow out a reminder to some opponent that the office of the Presidency clothes him “with immense power.”
Albeit reluctant to accept such ministrations, Lincoln is still served by blacks who work in the White House; so are all the other prominent white characters in the film. Blacks (and even a Native American) stand perpetually in the background awaiting their turns to be allowed to do something more substantial. By such means, Spielberg raises the issue of race, but chooses to elide the real Lincoln’s historical views on it. Lincoln was certainly a white supremacist and stated more than once his belief that sending willing blacks back to Africa might be the best solution to America’s racial ills.
Spielberg gives us a tantalizing moment between Lincoln and his wife’s mulatto servant Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) when Lincoln could have given an indication of his actual (i.e., historical) thoughts on race. Instead, Spielberg protects his Father of Our Country theme and goes for a watered-down version of Lincoln’s true-to-his-time mistrust of blacks as a group. When asked by Keckley how he sees the future for blacks, Spielberg’s Lincoln replies, “I don’t know you. I assume . . . I’ll get used to you.”
Keckley, to her credit (or Kushner’s), responds implicitly that she does not accept the Black Woman’s Burden of always and at all times representing the race with dignity and nobility. She points out that she has already given Lincoln the life of her own son as a fallen Union soldier. She adds, “What else must I be?” What else indeed.
Spielberg’s stellar liberal credentials (including The Color Purple and Amistad) notwithstanding, this is perforce a white director’s view of the subject matter. People convinced that the Civil War was not about slavery will likely remain set in their ignorance, even after seeing this film. But when Spielberg’s Lincoln, a crowd of diverse faces behind him, stretches out his arms upon a figurative cross to end the film, he serves as a convincing sacrifice for the sins of his countrymen, including his own and perhaps a few of our contemporary trespasses.
So eschew the facts and “print” the legend. There can be no doubt that we still need Lincoln. Even with the Obamas living in the Lincoln bedroom for four more years, we remain a nation/family bitterly divided.
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PAGE LAWS is Professor of English and Dean of the Honors College at Norfolk State University. She has previously written on the films Proof and A Prairie Home Companion for Bright Lights.