Lincoln: A Spielberg Movie

By: Bill Whaley
8 January, 2013

Certainly, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln met my expectations. The acting of Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field as Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln carry the melodrama, which movie features the good guys and gals v. the bad, similar to Schindler’s List. Spielberg seems like an updated version of Cecil B. De Mille, who made Biblical epics, though the director’s real avatar might be Walt Disney.

Basically, Tony Kushner, the screen writer, alters history and depicts character in service to the epic period piece even as he and Spielberg use the setting of savage civil war combat scenes to serve spectacle, a spectacle that seems extraneous to the political drama.

Kushner builds the drama around President Lincoln’s desire to obtain passage of the 13th Amendment, which states that neither “slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” And that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Kushner and Spielberg depict Lincoln as delaying the peace process, while he and his operatives—comic relief–blackmail and bribe a few Congressmen for votes.

(On a deeper level, viewers might interpret Lincoln’s motive as justifying 600,000 mortal casualties, soldiers who died for the sake of justice and freedom.)

Typically, as in Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s Lincoln simpers while it flatters the liberal view that human beings are decent folk–even as the bad guys know not what they do. It is Disney movie making aimed at children and adults, who remain ensconced in the bubble of belief outside the reality of actual human behavior and cruel social forces. Spielberg’s politicians in the House of Representatives remind you of contemporary congressmen and women: substitute Civil War era democrats for today’s Tea Party Republicans or the abolitionists then for Pelosi–Kucinich democrats today.

Though Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln is a fine bit of character acting, the icon, Lewis-Lincoln, never becomes a full-fledged human being, unlike Sally Field’s Mary Lincoln, who is ever so passionate–Norma Rae all grown up. Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stephens, the leader of the abolitionists, is a caricature, like most of the actors, who serve as historical markers or representations of ideas. The extras and especially the characters playing black soldiers and servants are treated as respectable and anachronistic, their language sounding more like educated sophisticates of the late 20th Century, especially in contrast to the crude Congressman of yesterday (and today).

An argument can be made that the drama portrays realpolitick, blistering political attacks and betrayals,  even if the artistic merit of the movie is lacking. Spielberg doesn’t trust his audience so he throws in an expository prologue and epilogue, hitting moviegoers with hammer and tongs, explanatory statements in case you don’t understand the obvious issues and the times. Similarly, Kushner’s Lincoln drops lines from Shakespeare as if to illustrate the President’s profound understanding of human nature. Yet Lincoln’s actual anecdotes, calculated to disarm and teach, display a broader knowledge and truer sense of the human condition.

In contrast to Tommy Lee Jones’ grotesque wig, Lincoln’s wonderful but declaimed anecdotes, or Spielberg’s pompous spectacle, there are both melodramatic and fully developed scenes that move the audience. If you really care about justice and freedom, you will enjoy the melodrama. We can’t have too many reminders of America’s founding vision, when those principles escape the notice of most politicians and elected officials today–as they did during Lincoln’s time.

The movie also features a scene between Abe and Mary as they fling recriminations back and forth about the death of a child that touches on universal human suffering as domestic life seems doubly difficult for public servants. A quiet moment between President Lincoln and two telegraph operators shows us Lincoln’s tragic character as he sends a message that instructs General U.S. Grant to delay the peace delegation from the South. He needs time to pass the 13th Amendment and knows more bodies may be sacrificed.

I was reminded of the Vietnam peace process and how Nixon delayed it but for the sake of an election, not unlike Obama’s approach to the war on terror, kowtowing to the right on wiretapping and torture, etc.

Lincoln had already won a second term at the point when the story begins. You might call Lincoln a compassionate pragmatist. Politics is a dirty game. Still, Lincoln calls on the angels in our nature. As the movie ends, he is making his second inaugural address, sending us home “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” The icon  trumps the human being mortally wounded at Ford’s Theatre.

As author Garry Wills points out in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Lincoln’s last major speech complements The Gettysburg Address because we can never forget “what they did here,” the soldiers who spilt their blood and died. At Gettysburg Lincoln, the brilliant politician and statesmen, quoted the lines that “all men are created equal” and used allusions to the Declaration of Independence to trump and transcend the U.S. Constitution. While trying to preserve the Union, Lincoln reinstated the promise of America’s founding moral vision of justice, freedom, equality. Sure Lincoln was flawed but has America ever produced a more prudent or wiser man?

(BTW: If you want to see raw movie making and wonderful acting, rent the low budget Beasts of the Southern Wild, a gut-wrenching confrontation where the beasts of nature and humanity meet. Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, a six-year-old (?) girl, is unforgettable.)

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