by Anthony Painter
As a director, how can you possibly cope with a figure such as Abraham Lincoln on screen? The most logical projection is to mesh civil war grotesqueness with the oratorical adeptness. Perhaps one could place him in a battle of wills and minds with his confederacy adversary, Jefferson Davis: a man of history doing battle with a man of corrupted vested interests. Some none too subtle allusions to the later pioneers of racial equality could be sprinkled in along the way – maybe the distant voices of a Luther King or even a Barack Obama could be dropped in. The gruesome life of a slave could be depicted and reminders that America’s third president – Thomas Jefferson – took a slave concubine (his late wife’s half sister) could be referenced.
To be perfectly honest, all of this is exactly what was to be expected once Steven Spielberg took on the challenge of re-introducing us to America’s most brilliant yet enigmatic president – post founding fathers that is. And somehow, despite himself, Spielberg mostly avoids the obvious pitfalls. Spielberg is a director who does schmaltzy and effect-heavy kids films with a certain panache and treats adults as if they are kids- with honourable exceptions such as Schlinder’s List. Not this time.
Instead, Spielberg focuses our gaze on the character of the man himself. For that to work would require a method actor of sublime capacity. You’d need someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. That is precisely who Spielberg persuaded to do the role. The brilliance of this biopic is that from the outset the director draws us simultaneously into the world of wartime political intrigue and the character of the man who found it his responsibility to navigate the republic through civil war with its union intact and slavery abolished. Everything I have ever read about the character of Lincoln was there in this on-screen play- for that is what it is.
It would be similarly easy to duck the controversies and imperfections of Lincoln’s story. He didn’t believe in full racial equality - or wasn’t prepared to fight for it in the way that Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republican faction was prepared to do – and suspected inter-racial harmony to be an impossibility to the extent that he supported resettlement of slaves at various times. Alongside this, there is the sheer magnitude of death in the civil war. 600,000 deaths would appear to place it in the same category as the Crimean War which is remembered for its sheer horrific nature. Lincoln’s disgust at slavery and deep conviction for union was not without considerable cost.
Spielberg is quite honest about these aspects of Lincoln’s record. In one of the film’s more clunky moments, Lincoln discusses what will become of an African American housemaid’s ‘people’ once the war is done. The housemaid, Elizabeth Keckley played by Gloria Reuben, appears at various times in the film as a motherly symbol of ongoing trepidation about the whole enterprise. Her loss is great but her fears for the future are just as grave. Spielberg just can’t resist these moments which sometimes break the pace and historical illusion of the film. He’s much better when following the script of the book on which the film is loosely based- Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals- and trusting his actors to deliver.
Some have made much of the historical inaccuracies in the film such as the things that Lincoln wouldn’t have said or the strangely svelte and youthful figure of William Seward. The appearance of Ulysses S Grant with a cup of tea rather than a glass of whisky perhaps represents a similar historical biographical photoshopping- or perhaps not such is the debate. These glitches kind of miss the achievement of the film as a whole: the presentation of Lincoln as a man of ethics, politics and law with considerable courage and ability to persevere. To judge him by modern notions of equality and justice is pretty meaningless.
The way of bridging two parallel convictions – the abolition of slavery while keeping the union together – would require two monumental actions. A war had to be fought and the constitution had to be changed. Lincoln knew this in a way that few of his contemporaries did. Actually, the confederacy feared as much– what else explains the secession of seven states between his election in 1860 and his inauguration in March of the following year? A month later America was at war with itself. Had the southern states not seceded then slavery would never had been abolished in those states – a few years later with the South on its knees, the constitution could be changed through the Thirteenth Amendment. The war was won and the constitution was changed. Lincoln took advantage of the moment – the mark of a great leader.
As soon as the Supreme Court issued its Dred Scott judgement in 1857 which denied African American equality and citizenship before the law and the federal government the ability to regulate slavery, then free states and slave states were set on a course of conflict. While still seeking to avoid war even at the time of his first inaugural in 1861, it is clear that Lincoln had been thinking through the actions required to abolish or at least contain slavery following Dred Scott. It comes through in his debates against Stephen Douglas in 1858; in his 1858 Springfield ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’ speech; and in his attempt to rewrite the constitutional intentions of the founding fathers in a speech in Cooper Union in 1860.
Spielberg’s screenplay details Lincoln’s moment of realisation that the Thirteenth Amendment was a necessity. It doesn’t tell his whole story – far from it. The hope must be that this film provokes in the audience a desire to study this man wider – with all his convictions and doubts – at a moment of historical possibility. The superb performances of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Lincoln help Daniel Day-Lewis and the film’s director carry the weight of this task a little easier.
Lincoln’s story is not a simple tale of heroism and idealism in the face of evil and moral darkness. Steven Spielberg respects his audience enough to acknowledge that and the ethical and philosophical compromises that had to be made in order to abolish slavery with the union remaining as one. And for all the scepticism and revisionism of Lincoln’s life and achievements, a very simple fact remains. He abolished slavery while keeping the constitution’s integrity – just. It is for this reason that Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial to articulate his dream, referencing the awkward, wiry president’s Gettysburg address along the way. Spielberg for his part has enabled us to know Abraham Lincoln’s character a little more intimately. He has reminded us that politics is about both means and ends in the process. And that Lincoln is a president whose greatness endures – as it must.
Anthony Painter is an author and a critic