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Lincoln – Steven Spielberg. The past is another place….


Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln


Lincoln – Steven Spielberg

“The past is another country. They do things differently there.” L P Hartley’s now almost proverbial opening lines of The Go-Between constantly resonated in the back of my mind throughout this powerful, accomplished, superbly acted film.

With typical authority and characteristically meticulous attention to detail, Spielberg assembles to great effect, the several arts of verisimilitude modern cinema offers: costume, set, Art direction, cinematography etc. I am persuaded without reservation that what we see on screen in Lincoln at any moment is what such a scene 150 years ago would have looked like.

Equally, I find no difficulty or dissonance with the sequence of verifiable, factual events shown. We all accept, of necessity, that any depiction of events, post hoc or even current, must be selective, chosen for artistic, dramatic effect. Spielberg has decided to construct a selective narrative around a small part of Abraham Lincoln’s life: a focused perspective on the man and a critical part of his 4-year Presidency which precipitated and was dominated by the American Civil War.

I can also see why Spielberg has chosen the focus he has: for it is rich in the irreducible contradictions and dilemmas of practical politics: the choice between principle and pragmatism; being right and being effective. But neither Spielberg nor screenplay writer Tony Kushner, despite the authenticity of period and persuasiveness of performance, ever reaches deep enough into the conflict of ideas and beliefs the implacable opposition of which left over 1 million dead or wounded. The passion and passions of hostility and hatred are convincingly shown but seem tied to a slogan – pro and anti-slavery; rather than rooted in the fundamentally different view of the world, morality and politics represented by the North and the Confederacy and within which the institution of slavery was tragically embedded.

Lincoln, typically expressed this perfectly:

“Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the Nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”

One of the greatest strengths of Aaron Sorkin’s sustained brilliance in writing for the West Wing was his ability to understand and effectively express both sides of disputes. The tone of the series was largely liberal and Democratic – but he regularly created credible, likeable characters though whom he expressed a rational, credible perspective on the opposing conservative, Republican philosophy.

To our modern liberal sensibility it is hard to even hear, let alone countenance the visceral, racist implacability of those opposed to abolition as portrayed in Lincoln. And this is where the essence of my opening paragraph bites deep. Whatever may happen in practice, there is today a widespread, virtually world-wide consensus that recognizes the absurdity, let alone the obscenity not just of slavery but the racist beliefs that justified and sustained it. As such, watching the railing, ranting, hypocritical, arrogance and hubris of the politicians as shown in Lincoln – all of course clothed in the language of principle, never challenged or argued for – looks as trivial, meaningless, ill-mannered, as a pointless spat at Prime Minister’s Question Time. That this brawling, pompous, bunch of self-serving bigots were making decisions that sent a million young men and women to their deaths beggars belief – in the film as well as the history. One feels there had to be more to the hostility, the hatred, the conflict, than this. It is for me the fundamental weakness of Spielberg’s otherwise excellent film, not that he doesn’t succeed in exploring and illuminating this profound and disturbing question – but that he really doesn’t try. He takes the pro- and anti-abolition positions as given and concentrates on the political mechanics.

A consequence of this is that Spielberg’s Lincoln is politically and personally more Lyndon Johnson than Jack Kennedy: cynical pragmatism over inspirational, idealistic leadership. For all the finely observed detail and conviction of Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal his Lincoln is not the charismatic leader history records. This impression is reinforced by another disappointment of Lincoln for me: for a man rightly renowned for his inspirational rhetoric and speeches; endlessly quotable, none of the speeches shown – including an oddly downbeat final scene – takes flight, lifts the heads and hearts and minds in the way that both Lincoln’s and indeed Kennedy’s later, do – simply in reading, let alone hearing as recorded or performed. It’s almost as if Kushner and Spielberg were afraid of the inspirational and idealistic and felt the need, perhaps to meet modern so-called ‘realistic’ sensibilities to make their Lincoln more of an effective Political operator than a great leader.

That said the political pragmatism is persuasive: and perhaps rightly plays into one’s modern cynicism about politics and politicians. You do need to concentrate on these sections of the narrative as they are certainly as challenging as one of Sorkin’s more dense West Wing scripts. With clear contemporary resonance it is clear that under the exigencies of war Lincoln behaved extra-legally (suspension of Habeas Corpus) and beyond his Constitutional powers in issuing the Emancipation Declaration regarding slaves. Much of the film turns on his realization that the unconstitutionality of the Emancipation had to be remedied if it was to survive the War. Hence the driving force of Lincoln is his determination to embed the end of slavery firmly and for perpetuity in the Constitution through the 13th Amendment. Much of the film’s tension lies in the wheeler-dealing, pork-barrel bribes, political blackmail and unashamed use of patronage required to win the Congressional vote on this amendment – for which initially they were more than 20 votes short.

Like any buzzy episode of the West Wing this is fascinating, at times tense and dramatic stuff within which we see all the flaws and imperfections to which men in general and politicians in particular are only too prone. A superb Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stephens, secretly sharing his bed with his black housekeeper, exemplifies the central moral conflict in the film when he dilutes his belief in the fundamental equality of black people as we might say before God, to the pragmatic demand that they should be accorded equality before the law. This again for the political expediency of so framing the Amendment that it can appeal widely enough to be passed. It is the position of Spielberg’s film, probably historically accurate, that a large number of Congressmen who voted for the abolition of slavery would neither then, or ever have been willing to countenance that freed slaves should be given the vote: a horrifying prospect for the time on a par with the enfranchisement of women. Another country indeed.

Lincoln is a powerful, accomplished film with a central performance from Day-Lewis mercifully free for me of any of his distracting mannerisms: he is Lincoln from the moment he appears on screen and that authenticity and authority is sustained throughout. He never has been, and for me perhaps never will be better. The Oscar’s, rightly, in the bag. There are many other superb support performances – from Tommy Lee Jones (another Oscar if there’s any justice); a feisty Sally Field; the greatly under-rated David Strathairn and the ‘guvnor’ of US movie character actors – 88-years old Hal Holbrook.

The deepest flaws in this period story do not lie in the film or the performances – but in the history itself.  On November 19th 1863 at Gettysburg, in one of the best known, most admired political speeches ever made, President Lincoln began thus:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….”

Spielberg’s film makes it clear that as far as the real political events were concerned this should have read – “that all men should be treated as equal before the law”. America still awaits the full-hearted consent of its people to the fundamental truth as Lincoln stated it.

Further additions to accommodate truth would be:

“…..conceived in liberty, established in genocide, and dedicated to the proposition that all men, except Native Americans, are created equal….”

Black Americans were granted citizenship, a pre-condition of enfranchisement, by the 14th amendment of 1868. It would be a further 56 years before the same ‘privilege’ was accorded to all Native Americans: and a further 40 years before the last American State granted them the right to vote.

Lincoln was a great man. Within the limits of what was possible at the time he was courageous and principled. But as with much history, not just but especially American, his life is as much a greatly needed myth as historical truth.


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