This post is reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement article, here.
Abraham Lincoln is America’s most familiar president, as well as the most mysterious. His likeness is, literally, common as a penny – or a $5 bill – while his character continues to confound and elude us even now, nearly a century and a half after his assassination. There are so many Lincolns: the marmoreal figure in whose presence Richard Nixon met with anti-war protesters in May 1970, just a few days after National Guardsmen had shot four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio; the railroad lawyer and tool of Northern finance capital who had ruthlessly destroyed our Southern way of life – a view held by many in the Virginia Tidewater where I was born and by a strand of Marxist historians in the universities; the “father Abraham” of spiritual and legend, martyred Moses of African Americans. In recent years there has even been a lively debate about the sixteenth President’s sexuality.
Yet the persistently nagging, eventually unshakeable conviction, as I watched Daniel Day-Lewis’s impersonation, that I had met this man somewhere before, didn’t trace back to any of that. His Lincoln, like the real one, is over-fond of quoting Shakespeare, appears half-asleep when alertness is most required, is driven to distraction by his wife’s increasingly feeble hold on her sanity, and tormented by visions of the slaughter and ruin wrought on his order. This mounting sense of déjà vu didn’t mar my enjoyment of the film, but it was a distraction – almost as much as the tears I couldn’t seem to stop. Those who think of history as a dry business where facts and figures keep emotions firmly in check will find Lincoln distinctly unsatisfying – except, perhaps, as an invitation to pedantry.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is not, in fact, a PhD. thesis, and though Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, may have as deep a grasp of the complexities and conflicts in American history as anyone now writing for a mass audience, his first obligation is to the drama, not the details. Yet as the flurry of fact-checking articles which greeted Lincoln’s American debut attest, it is apparently possible to spend the film’s entire 150 minutes with pad in hand noting down anachronisms and historical elisions.
Most of these are, admittedly, pretty small beer: the Bavarian-born John Nikolay, one of Lincoln’s two secretaries – and later his biographer – probably sounded more like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who actually voiced him in a television documentary) than Jeremy Strong. Nor would the Vermont native Thaddeus Stevens recognize much of himself in the indelibly Texan tones of Tommy Lee Jones. Amusing though it is to watch the film’s scenes of congressional raillery, members of the House of Representatives, though occasionally fighting duels outside the chamber, did not address one another directly from the floor. And it is highly unlikely that W. N. Bilbo, the Tennessee political operator hired to procure the votes Lincoln needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, thus ending slavery, would utter the particular expletive Kushner gives him when the President decides to pay a surprise visit.
The historian does not go to the cinema seeking enlightenment, and those who attend Lincoln looking for something to complain about will not come away empty-handed. The shooting may have stopped in the American Civil War in May 1865 (or June if you were unlucky enough to be aboard one of the ten whalers captured off the Aleutian Islands by the Confederate warship Shenandoah before her captain learned the war was over), but arguments over the war’s precise causes – particularly over the role of slavery – and its legacy continue to rage. Some of the more serious historical criticism of Lincoln has taken issue with Spielberg’s decision to focus on the events of January 1865, when the newly re-elected President, having freed the slaves in the rebel states by the Emancipation Proclamation two years previously, risked his political capital by pushing forward a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery altogether. This frame doesn’t exactly deny slaves that agency in their liberation that the work of historians like Barbara Fields, one of the stars of the Burns brothers’ documentary series on the Civil War, has done so much to illuminate – but apart from a brief encounter with a pair of black soldiers in the beginning, and a couple of stagey, improbable conversations between the President and Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who served as his wife’s seamstress and confidante, it is left mostly off-screen.
Yet to complain about such matters, however historically well-intentioned, is to miss a point that should have been obvious from the film’s choice of title. Lincoln is not about the Civil War or the evils of slavery. It isn’t even about the whole of Abraham Lincoln’s life, though it is worth noting that, despite the film’s compressed focus, Day-Lewis takes us far deeper inside the President’s character than such earlier, and iconic, incarnations as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln or Raymond Massey’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois – both of which stopped well short of the White House.
That is because whatever else he was – railsplitter, country lawyer, teller of tall stories – Lincoln was above all else a politician. Lincoln is a film about politics – the most intelligent, least deluded film about American politics since Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949). And while that film, an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel inspired by the career of the Louisiana politician Huey Long, is both an anatomy of corruption and a renunciation of politics, Lincoln attempts something far more difficult: to show, as Thaddeus Stevens put it (repeated, slightly out of context, by Tommy Lee Jones), how “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”.
By January 1865 Lincoln had finally found, in Ulysses S. Grant, a commanding general who could actually fight. He’d also ditched the “team of rivals” that made up his first cabinet in favour of an election cabinet that pledged loyalty not only to the President himself but, in the event of an electoral defeat that most thought likely, to Lincoln’s plan to secure victory in the war before the inauguration of his Democratic rival, the feckless (but popular) General George McClellan. And as the film shows, he’d also undergone a kind of revolution in his own attitudes. Though Lincoln always hated slavery, when he’d written, early in his presidency, that “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it” he’d meant it. He also long favoured colonization – shipping freed slaves to Africa, or Central America – as a solution to the problems posed by emancipation. William Seward, the former governor of New York who began as first among the rivals in Lincoln’s cabinet, but by 1865 had become a ferociously loyal Secretary of State, warns him he can either have a speedily negotiated end to the war or the Thirteenth Amendment. But Lincoln wants both.
David Strathairn’s Seward initially baulks at the political machinations needed to keep the fractious Republican Party in line and to persuade a sufficient number of lame- duck Democrats to back the amendment. In a way, Lincoln is really a “caper” film, with votes being merely so much loot. As Seward assembles his gang, and Bilbo and his crew use threats, cajolery, the offer of patronage posts and, when all else fails, outright bribes to round up the votes, Spielberg heightens the suspense by cutting to scenes of Lincoln’s home life, his spirits crushed between a wife, Mary (played with remarkable restraint by Sally Fields), driven mad with grief by the death of one son from typhoid, and an older son desperate to enlist in the army before the war’s end deprives him of his chance.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a President whose seeming indolence masks a watchful, preternaturally determined manipulator of men and events, easily credible as the strategist who snookered the South into firing first at Fort Sumter. With his high, reedy voice, paternal indulgence towards his youngest son Tad (whose cleft palate seems to have been cinematically corrected) and incontinent fondness for barnyard humour, this Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect.
This Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect
There is an extra element of suspense in all Spielberg’s historical epics: will he, we wonder, resist the sentimentality that has brought him so much success in Hollywood? By now it should be clear that Spielberg can do whatever he wants with his medium. In Munich, his last collaboration with Kushner, he even managed to withhold a happy ending. In Lincoln he doesn’t hold out quite so long; viewers who miss the last ten minutes will see a better film.
Yet it was during that final swerve for edification that I finally remembered where I’d met this particular Lincoln before: in the pages of Gore Vidal’s novel. Not literally, of course – the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is barely mentioned in that book’s 700-odd pages (a Derridean might call this an “absent presence”). But the sense that here, finally, walked a man of flesh and blood and passion and intellect. Historians, naturally, hated Vidal’s Lincoln. But I suspect it will be read long after Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, now enjoying a spike in sales thanks to its credit as Kushner’s inspiration, is forgotten. And for those who want more, there will be this splendid film. As the credits rolled, the audience in Brattleboro, Vermont burst into applause. The only state in the union where slavery was never legal, Vermont sent a tenth of its citizenry to fight in the Civil War. It was the Second Vermonters who broke Pickett’s charge, turning the tide at Gettysburg. I don’t know if any of their descendants were in the theatre; but as the lights came up, there were few people left unmoved.
D. D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for the Nation, is the author of American Radical: The life and times of I. F. Stone, 2011, and the producer of Edward Said: The last interview, 2004.