The OF Blog: Lincoln (2012 film)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lincoln (2012 film)

Abraham Lincoln has fascinated historians and the American populace for over 150 years.  He has been condemned as the person whose anti-slavery rhetoric became a direct cause of the American Civil War; his ideals forged a truer, more united states of America.  He was a wartime tyrant to many, suspending the writ of habeas corpus; he personally corresponded with and pardoned hundreds of deserters.  He could not show the depths of his grief when one of his sons died; he wrote a letter to a grieving mother that is immortalized as one of the finest examples of English-language letters.  He was in origin a Southerner whose name, even today, stirs up some resentment among certain Southerners.  He was a leader who was known as much for his indecision as for his monumental decisions.  In short, Lincoln embodied a host of contradictions that when encased in one human soul, became somehow larger than life and even more important after his death than during the crucial 49 months of his Presidency. 

These qualities have led to hundreds of biographies and a few cinema treatments over the intervening years.  In the just-released Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg tackles a defining moment of his Presidency, yet one that 147 years later is largely whitewashed in high school and college US History coursebooks.  Many have long presumed that the Civil War was largely fought over slavery (an issue that to this date stirs up fierce arguments among Southerners; see the comments to this post I made in April) and that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished chattel slavery and non-criminal involuntary servitude) was a foregone conclusion.  If anything, that amendment perhaps stirred as much fierce debate and controversy than any other amendment outside of later civil rights-related amendments (14th, 15th, 19th, 24th).  It actually failed on numerous occasions during the course of the war to get the requisite two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress before it could even be submitted to the states for ratification.  Lincoln focuses on the pivotal month of January 1865, where after the 1864 elections the Republicans had gained more seats in Congress and the lame duck session was debating the bill before the March turnover, in which the Thirteenth Amendment is finally passed.

It is an interesting decision to focus on a relatively neglected moment in Lincoln's life/Presidency, but Spielberg and the screenwriter Tony Kushner do an outstanding job of portraying the many faces of Lincoln during this time.  The movie opens with Lincoln outside, greeting troops, black and white alike, after they are being deployed for the winter campaign.  This scene, in which soldiers from both of the segregated regiments recite parts of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to him, serves as a foreshadowing of events late in the movie, when the final vote is to be held and those who have the most at stake for the amendment's passage show up.  It also serves to show Lincoln as the folksy yet pensive leader, one who mingled at times with the troops in order to remind himself of the war's brutality.

The majority of the film focuses on the negotiations that take place during the three weeks leading up to the amendment's vote.  We see the bribes, the offers of patronage that were a common feature of pre-1880s federal government employment.  The factions within Lincoln's government, the aptly-named Team of Rivals, are on full display, although it is rather telling that the new Vice President-elect, Andrew Johnson, plays no visible role in the movie (perhaps because he had yet to establish himself back in Washington after serving as military governor of Tennessee).  The splits within the Republican party, between the old Whig Party members and the Radicals (led in the House of Representatives by Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens), foreshadow the break of 1866-1867 with Johnson's administration.  There is a lot covered here (not to mention the conflict between Lincoln, his wife, and their son Robert over Robert's desire to become a commissioned officer) that more than justifies the movie's nearly 2.5 hour length.

For such a long movie, there are very few dull moments.  Too often when it comes to war-related films, directors/producers feel the pressure to include "action" scenes, full of explosions and carnage.  Wisely, Spielberg eschews this, outside of a few moments here and there, instead focusing on the greater story of the tensions between Lincoln's cabinet members (in particular between Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of War Stanton) over the issue of whether it is better to achieve a quicker, negotiated peace with the Confederacy that would allow for them to rejoin/resume membership in the Union (even the terminology for readmission is a semantic mess, which Lincoln references at a key point roughly one-third into the film), even if it meant that slavery would not be abolished and that there existed the strong possibility that the Supreme Court might rule that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation might be unconstitutional after the military exigencies that justified it had ended.

Yet even with all of these historical events providing the necessary narrative tension to sustain a movie of this length, it is the acting that makes Lincoln an outstanding biopic.  Daniel Day Lewis does a superb job in showing Lincoln wearing all of his masks, even the ones that are perhaps a bit distasteful for those who wish to write hagiographies on him.  The voice, a high tenor that sounds wry, weak, conflicted, angry, and weary as the mood dictates,  fits not just the historical accounts of Lincoln but it also fits within the movie's constraints.  What was surprising, however, was the sympathetic treatment given to Stevens (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones).  Long reviled (at least in the South) as being an uncompromising firebrand who believed that full racial equality should be achieved immediately rather than in stages, not to mention being opposed to any sort of amnesty to Confederate leaders, Stevens is portrayed as dour and occasionally malicious, yet also with the zealot's love for justice that transcends personal failings.  Jones does an outstanding job of capturing these elements of Stevens' personality, while also illustrating the often-overlooked capacity to compromise when the greater good is threatened to be outdone by the Democratic-led, racist-tinged opposition to the amendment.  Although she receives much less screentime than either Lewis or Jones, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln provides a nice counter to Lincoln's carefully-crafted public mask of stoicism.  Her outburst regarding her son's desire to join the Union Army references her earlier grief and her near complete mental breakdown when another son, Willie, died of typhoid fever (after the war, she was committed for a time).

There were remarkably few changes for dramatic effect, as even Stevens's paramour is a matter of historical record.  Instead, Lincoln may be one of those rare biopics where the historical record is itself so dramatic and lending itself to being portrayed as a battle of strong wills that the conflicts that occurred in the House chamber in January 1865 provide most, if not all, of the desired dramatic content.  Lincoln's close-up examination of this momentous time in Lincoln's Presidency captures almost perfectly the breadth and depth of his life and character and it perhaps may be one of the best biopics to be released by a major American studio in years.  Highly recommended.


Foxessa said...

Johnson was so drunk at the Inauguration he couldn't take the oath or deliver his speech.

This boded as badly for Lincoln's bad choice for VP as it turned out to be.

Love, C.

Larry Nolen said...

The things we Tennesseans are never told about our former Presidents! :D

neal said...

Great review. I thought the film was fantastic, but did wonder at some of the authenticity, even with the extensive "footnotes" in the end credits.

Larry Nolen said...

I was a history major/grad student, albeit in German cultural/religious history, but I've read quite a bit over the years on the Lincoln years and 19th century American politics to know that the events are largely true to life, including the spoiled youngest Lincoln son, the resentment the oldest son had toward the family, Mary Lincoln's mental health issues, the Radical opposition to Lincoln's policies, etc. Spielberg, et al. didn't have to create new dramatic moments; the historical record indicates there was plenty of fireworks being lit then.

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