historian, author, film producer

“Lincoln”–a brief review

Last night I went to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with my Civil War and Reconstruction class at the University of Nebraska. The theater was sold out for both showings. We actually had to sit in the very front row of the theater. I can’t remember the last time I sat in the front row–Live and Let Die, Starwars (the first, rather fourth)? Lincoln’s words and those of his opponents and supports have been in front of me lately because I am editing James A. Rawley’s last book, titled A Lincoln Dialogue. This compilation will be released posthumously next year by the University of Nebraska Press, and features many of the speeches included in Spielberg’s production.

It should be said that making biopics of presidents as commercial film is tricky business and no one has gotten it right perhaps until now. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is full of words, and yet it is gripping and humanizing. In many places it is laugh-out-loud funny. It avoids many (but not all) of the traps of this subject–such as overplaying the majesty of the office and presenting an ultimately unknowable leader. Lincoln makes none of these mistakes. Instead, this film makes us feel we know Lincoln better, more intimately, and more fully. Much of this is due to Daniel Day-Lewis, who turns in another brilliant performance here (after There Will Be Blood). When his Lincoln clasps the hand of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) as they wait in the telegraph office for the results to come in about the Battle of Wilmington, the physicality of their grip is not only authentic but truly moving. Day-Lewis has always excelled at this physical, kinesthetic acting. We too wait there with Lincoln and Stanton, and we too gradually realize that we would need another to hold us steady in the face of such anticipation of such news. This moment like so many in Lincoln is shorn of fist-pumping triumphalism. Instead, it works on our humility and common purpose. And it is spine-tingling.

Historians will be concerned that for so much of the film African American characters are observers rather than actors–they passively wait while the white politicians essentially vote them their freedom by a narrow margin. Emancipation, technically the end of slavery, is presented here as a gift to black Americans, one engineered only through shady political dealing. The subtle message is that all ennobling acts in American history, such as the passage of the 13th Amendment, are suffused with corruption, and yet therein lies the genius of the American political system, those who understand it (Lincoln), and those who created it (the Founders). In this respect Lincoln works to make many Americans proud of their history and government–indeed, the sold-out theater in Lincoln, Nebraska, last night applauded spontaneously and with gusto at the end of the film.

Black soldiers confront Lincoln in the opening scene of the film, one of them pressing for equality. A bedroom scene of an interracial “marriage” nearly closes the film–Thaddeus Stevens and his longtime lover and housekeeper Lydia Smith. Between the two scenes, however, black actors are marginal if not caricatured. Kate Masur has written about this in her recent New York Times Op-Ed on the film. Masur considers the film an “opportunity squandered.”

To my surprise Lincoln offered striking parallels to this post-election season. The film opens with his having won re-election, unsure of his second term agenda, winding down a major war, facing a recalcitrant House of Representatives, and seeing his major war measure (emancipation) open to court review and potential dismantling. Lincoln at one point says that the public had two years to consider emancipation and decided to re-elect him. The political infighting presented in Lincoln, while entertaining, suggests another missed opportunity. Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), a former Senator from New York, and longtime political operative in the Republican Party, organizes the campaign to turn Democratic votes. But the speeches and the patronage are presented as comedy rather than what they were–knife fights in the dark. Colorful personalities aside, the idea that American politics is light-hearted mischief, eventually redeemed by the process itself, ignores not only the brutal calculations of those involved but also the depth and power of those resistant to change.

The intense appeal of Lincoln, then, over the long run will derive not from its political scenes but from its portrayal of Lincoln’s attempt to manage the political and personal consequences of the war.

This blog post was initially published November 17, 2012 and updated November 18, 2012