There’s an easy critique to make of Lincoln. It’s the latest in a long line of popular retellings of the Civil War that puts white men at the center of the narrative, marginalizing the very people who fought and died for the recognition of their own humanity. It’s more pernicious endorsement of the Great Man theory of history and all its attendant, authoritarian implications. This is an easy critique because it’s essentially correct. If someone condemns Lincoln because they are too distractingly annoyed by this, I completely understand, and there’s really no arguing with that reaction.
But I think rejecting Lincoln for this reason is like hating Back to the Future because time travel is impossible. If you have any interest in seeing a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, you have to accept the premise that it’s going to focus on Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg is one of the greatest screen stylists in history, but he is a deeply conventional in his thinking. He has the imagination of a white suburban baby boomer who grew up wholly enamored of America’s civic mythology, where figures like Abraham Lincoln (like the citizen soldiers of the Second World War) loom like gods. It’s Lincoln that he feels a kinship, who he can project himself into. Asking him to tell the stories of slaves or ex-slaves when there’s mythic, world-historic, brilliant, soulful Father Abraham just standing there waiting to have a definitive screen portrayal is like asking him to make a torture porn movie. To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you go to the theater with the Spielberg you have.
So if you accept that you’re going to see a lot of “Lincoln” in Lincoln, and that the film’s focus on the passage of the 13th Amendment by the House of Representatives in early 1865 also means a focus on shouty white guys with beards, the question becomes: does it succeed within the framework of its constraints? On a technical level, Lincoln is an all-around triumph. Spielberg’s direction and John Williams’ score are both uncharacteristically restrained. There are a few moments where the urge to overemphasize gets the better of them, but these wince-worthy swells of string are blessedly few and far between. For the most part, Spielberg lets Tony Kushner’s superb script and the powerhouse performances speak for themselves. And speak they do, with thunder. Daniel Day-Lewis gives what it probably the greatest performance of his career as Lincoln, bringing forth layer after layer of depth to a character who is usually thought of as a marble god of Republican virtue. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is folksy, warm, tormented, erudite, scheming, rage-filled, dismissive and cold. He is, in short, human. Sally Field has fewer registers to play, since she is mostly confined to venting her grief at her husband, but her Mary Todd Lincoln still manages to rise above a caricature of Victorian feminine hysteria. Even the minor parts are filled with excellent character actors. Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes are brilliant choices because they’re the kind of actors who only really look credible in 19th Century garb. They look like they stepped out of a daguerreotype. But James Spader, who plays the leader of their band of political bagmen, is one of the most contemporary-looking dudes around, and he seamlessly transforms into a Victorian political roustabout with the help of a few fine waistcoats and a bitchin’ handlebar mustaches. The standout in this stellar field of supporting characters, though, is Tommy Lee Jones as Republican congressional firebrand Thaddeus Stevens.
The focus on Stevens is more than just an excuse for Tommy Lee Jones to give a masterclass in epic curmudgeondom. Thaddeus Stevens, whose views on racial equality were as radical as any man in congress, spent nearly a hundred years after the war being vilified by ‘respected’ historians as a frothing maniac and would-be tyrant. Now, he’s basically the only white American of the period who could show his face in polite society today. He’s essentially the audience surrogate, the only white guy in this sea of white guys with a modern racial sensibility. Stevens’ conflicts with Lincoln illustrate Lincoln’s mastery of compromise and political maneuvering, but also, subtly, the president’s essential racism. Spielberg and Kushner don’t focus on disillusioning viewers who may still think of Lincoln as the embodiment of racial progress, but they don’t shy away from it. It’s part of their greater project: to contextualize Lincoln, for good and ill. Abraham Lincoln was a man of his time, but what we see, again and again, as he takes huge political risks and bears the unfathomable burden of the war’s horrifying and ever-mounting body count, is a man of good faith attempting to transcend his time. It’s an admirable and inspiring attempt, but it’s not altogether successful, and the century of race terrorism and economic deprivation that the slaves and children of slaves freed by the 13th Amendment is grimly suggested by the pervasive, casual racism of many of the secondary characters, a racism shared, on some level, by Lincoln himself.
That’s where Day-Lewis’ genius performance makes its most indelible mark: by suggesting both Lincoln’s profound ambivalence on the question of black rights and also his ceaseless, earnestly questing mind. It’s not a hagiography, no matter what the trailers look like. It’s an honest, thoughtful attempt to crack open the granite Rushmore image of the “Great Emancipator,”to see the rumpled, heartsick and ceaselessly earnest man underneath.
Regardless of craftsmanship, though, Lincoln is really, really problematic from the standpoint of offering a truthful, insightful history of abolition. The 13th Amendment, while important, was really the codification of a process of emancipation that had been going on in the Confederacy since Ft. Sumter, a process driven by the slaves themselves, who abandoned their fields and took up arms and basically refused to allow slavery to continue in areas where Federal troops held sway. No government on earth had the power to place those people back into bondage even if they’d wanted to. And yet…
I loved Lincoln, and there are plenty of technical reasons to justify that love, but in reality, that love is tied inextricably to my Civil War nerd youth, who was horrified by slavery and saw the war to end it in near-religious terms. The mileage of any other viewer, especially someone who is sick to death of seeing our collective American history filtered through a Well Meaning White Male lens, may vary significantly.