A Lincoln at the End of his Tether

Abraham Lincoln is for Americans, something like a demigod. One or two other Presidents have achieved their own mythic status, but never anything like that of Lincoln. From his own time to the present, he has been an incarnation of the the American Union, a new and singular Founding Father, four score and seven years after the earlier ones. For the America that is as much a religion as a nation, he is a Christ-like figure, full of courage, wisdom, and humour; a suffering penitent who took on his shoulders the Original Sin of slavery, entrenched in the country’s founding document, and redeemed the nation from it; a writer and orator who captured the meaning of the moral struggle and bloody conflict of his time in poetic and Biblical language; at the Civil War’s end, the assassinated martyr. His Presidential years alone, coinciding exactly with the 1861-65 War, could scarcely be fitted into anything like a conventional cinematic biography.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln tries to cope with this challenge with a compressed character portrait covering only the last four months in Lincoln’s life, and the intimate and sometimes squalid details of his last political struggle. This was his fight to achieve a broader and more enduring fulfilment of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to be accomplished by ramming through the House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, permanently abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the United States. While the North had clearly won the war by then, Lincoln saw the task as both urgent and difficult. A Confederate delegation was approaching Washington with a peace offer. They might be unwilling to negotiate if finding slavery permanently outlawed, while if Congress became fully aware that a peace offer was at hand, its unpredictable mixture of conservative and Radical Republicans with wavering War Democrats might refuse to pass the Amendment. So Lincoln, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, had to engage in a certain amount of manipulation and subterfuge to carry out his grand design.

He needed the assistance of his friend, Secretary of State William Seward, well played by David Strathairn, and his critic but occasional collaborator, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the firebrand leader of the abolitionist Radical Republicans in Congress. He also needed the help of a sleazy Democratic Party backstairs fixer, William Bilbo (James Spader). At the same time, he had to deal with his private grief at the loss of a son to typhoid, and the nagging of his neurotic wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), both of them terrified of losing their oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to the war. The fast-moving narrative about these and a host of minor characters was taken by Spielberg from the 2005 bestseller book about the Lincoln cabinet by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, and Goodwin collaborated with the playwright Tony Kushner on the script. But it is the sheer virtuosity of Day-Lewis that brings the story to life.

Spielberg’s talent in filming spectacular action sequences is almost absent from Lincoln. The President is shown visiting the Union commanding general, Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris) at the battlefront, but only the film’s first few minutes, a grisly scene of soldiers dying in mud, brings home the savagery of the Civil War. That scene quickly gives way to a conversation between Lincoln and two black Union soldiers, and almost all of the rest of the film is rather stagey dialogue in darkly-lit rooms.

In those scenes in which Lincoln is not present, the dialogue is not always as impressive as it is clearly intended to be, with hints frequently provided by rising chords of background music. Sally Field is supposed to be irritating as Lincoln’s wife, and is only too successful. Tommy Lee Jones is also something of a mixed blessing. The real Thaddeus Stevens was dogged and humourless to the edge of fanaticism. But Jones pretty much plays the character he usually does, never quite able to conceal his amiable small-town Texas origins just below the surface of a gruff and scowling exterior. It is a little hard to see him as a blazing-eyed passionate Northern slavery abolitionist. Tommy Lee Thaddeus is, however, so much fun to watch that few will complain. In fact, all the acting is fine, only put in the shade by Day-Lewis, whose Lincoln is not a mythic icon, but a complex, clever, resourceful, fallible, and sometimes tormented man, splendidly achieved.

But Spielberg, who in recent years has clearly burned with an ambition not just to make fine entertainments, but to embrace ‘History’ with a capital H, tends to hit that large nail firmly on his thumb, and has done it again in Lincoln. It just might have been possible to convey the whole sense of Lincoln’s larger importance to his era within the narrow confines of Kushner’s script, but to do that would have required at least a bit more context, something more than a recapitulation of backstage political games. Because Spielberg and Kushner take for granted modern popular attitudes about the evil of slavery and the necessity of ending it, they show little interest in why not all Republicans were Radical ones, or why not all War Democrats were merely opportunist or timid. They take no interest at all in why Southerners were so confident of the justice of their own cause. By excluding all these considerations, studied by many of the best American historians for many years, they have helped give their story its rapid pace, but have robbed it of much of its tragic dimensions. Entirely successful in making an exciting story out of Lincoln’s ingenious politicking, they have removed any sense at all of why and how slavery had not only produced so complete a regional political division in one country, but eventually something like a clash between two rival civilizations, with the total defeat of one of them changing all of world history thereafter.

Lincoln is made to remark briefly at one point that the war cost 600, 000 lives, a figure he would be unlikely to know at the time, but permissible dramatic license. However, that horrendous figure is given little context. For example, for every six slaves freed, approximately one soldier was killed. For every ten white Southerners ultimately kept in the Union, one Union and one Confederate soldier died Furthermore, however appalling it now appears to think of human beings as property, emancipation with no compensation to slaveholders was one of the largest economic expropriations in the whole of human history, technically larger in scale than the expropriation carried out in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The utter ruin of the South was not just felt by the slaveholders, but by the suddenly ‘freed’. propertyless, largely illiterate, and henceforth only uncertainly employed ex-slaves. Lincoln’s Vice-President and unhappy successor, the Tennessee War Democrat Andrew Johnson, is entirely absent from the Spielberg film, but his difficulties in trying to apply Lincoln’s relatively mild policies of “Presidential Reconstruction’, only weeks after Lincoln was killed, came partly because Stevens and Seward were breathing hotly down his neck, eventually producing the crisis of Johnson’s near-impeachment, and from 1869 a near-decade of harsher ‘Radical Reconstruction’: the South was occupied by Union troops and flooded with Northern carpetbaggers buying up everything in sight from bankrupt Southerners. Almost another century of racial subordination, segregation, and lawless violence followed. Even if the war itself was unavoidable, it remains conceivable that had Lincoln chosen an earlier, messier, but less absolute and devastating end, a more gradual ending of slavery would have been better, even for the slaves. Lincoln’s ‘new birth of freedom’ came at terrible cost, not hinted at by the film.

Canadians of the time were driven to their own Confederation by the revolutionary explosion to their south. The British Empire had abolished slavery three decades earlier, and Canadians for the most part disapproved of its continuation in the American South. However, in the Civil War years themselves, Montreal and Toronto, irritated by rude Yankees and charmed by well-mannered and free-spending Southerners, largely came to favour their cause in the War. We still look back to that decade through the eyes of the practical and cynical John A. Macdonald, rather than those of his prophetic contemporary. Less moral grandeur, but less agony; our usual option.

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