The first thing to be said about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is what a brave idea it represents. It is that rarest of cinematic creatures, a movie about political processes (as opposed to political generalities and fine-sounding aspirations) which somehow manages to avoid the otherwise certain danger of boring its audience to death. The movie could have been made to remind us of Enoch Powell’s dictum that “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” This is about the “happy juncture” Lincoln had arrived at before his sad end — which takes place off screen — and so ends up as a movie about another most rare thing, political success.
Yet all of Mr. Spielberg’s considerable powers as a showman, all of the claustrophobic interiors of his brilliant d.p., Janusz Kaminski, all of the facility with clever dialogue of his screen-writer, Tony Kushner, and all of the acting talent of Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, may have been necessary to keep us from getting bogged down in back room horse-trading and deal-making involved in the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery forever. The main thing is that they succeeded, though the result is curious and worthy more than it is noble and soaring in the manner now traditional for Hollywood representations of the 16th president. It also manages to produce a genuine emotional kick as well as a subtle apologia for the Obama presidency. We shall return to that presently.
Of the top talents involved, the most important is that of Mr. Day-Lewis, who makes his Lincoln completely believable without diminishing the mystique which has always made his character’s story such a favorite with the movies. I am rather a skeptic about the “method” acting that he seems to go in for, but it has certainly paid off in this case. Even the convoluted legal explanation of why Lincoln needs to pass the Amendment during the lame-duck session with Democratic support when he would find the task far easier if he waited for a more sympathetic Republican Congress two months hence briefly makes sense, coming from his mouth. Both the unaffected folksiness of his laughter and story-telling and the irritation it must have caused in many even of his political allies ring true. At one point Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton interrupts the boss by saying, with palpable exasperation: “No, you’re not going to tell a story. I can’t bear to hear one.” The President falls into an easy, masculine camaraderie with his “Team of Rivals” (to cite the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on which the screenplay was partially based), but we also find it easy to believe in his underlying loneliness and his deep sadness.
Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln also does a fine job in making her character come alive, though her most important function is to suggest a particular and personal reason for that sadness: the death of their young son Willie, probably from typhoid fever, three years earlier and the marital strife which ensued from (among other things) her accusation that Lincoln’s grief for their child had been given insufficient expression. A thunderous quarrel between them on this subject is counterpointed and contrasted with a scene of domestic tranquility and affection as the two of them ride out together in the springtime and an open carriage, like a young couple courting, as an expression of joy and relief at the end of the war. Young Gulliver McGrath also helps to bring out the domestic Lincoln as Tad, Willie’s brother who survived his illness (though not, as it turned out, for long). But Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Lincolns’ oldest son, Robert, who drops out of Harvard to take up a commission in the army in defiance of his parents’ wishes, is rather a distraction, in spite of his unfashionable plea on behalf of honor.
It appears to have been Mr. Spielberg’s decision to narrow the film’s focus from the epic scale suggested by the Civil War, which mostly takes place off-screen, to the more parochial-seeming struggle over Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment in January of 1865, when the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. He has been helped to find the drama in the story by the bravura performance of Tommy Lee Jones as the “Radical Republican” leader in Congress, Thaddeus Stevens, whose egalitarian views really were radical for their time. When, in order to pass the Amendment, Stevens is required to repeat before the House, as if by rote, “I don’t hold with equality in all things, only equality before the law and nothing more,” the lie comes off as a noble one, as it is meant to do — the shining and redeeming example of under-handedness on the part of the forces of right and goodness by whose light a great many more, and more doubtful ones, are meant to be excused as essentially the same as the now-traditional Fabian tactics of today’s “progressive” tendency.
A trio of dubious characters played as comic grotesques by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes are responsible for most of the outright corruption we see, as they are licensed by Lincoln’s right hand man, David Strathairn’s William Seward, and later by Lincoln himself to offer patronage jobs in return for votes. But Lincoln himself is also guilty of duplicity and double-dealing, making promises he knows he can’t or won’t keep and palming off one of his supporters, Hal Holbrook’s Preston Blair, with a secret mission he has no intention of allowing to succeed. The price of Blair’s support is an agreement to negotiate peace with the South, and so he is sent to Richmond to retrieve representatives of the collapsing Confederate government, including Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley). But Lincoln arranges it so that the Southern ambassadors do not reach him in time to make any sort of deal, short of unconditional surrender, while lying to his own party by denying the rumors of the envoys’ mission or even their existence as such, since confirmation of the rumors would also scupper the Amendment.
And this is where we return to the film’s relevance to today’s politics. Thaddeus Stevens is given the task of pronouncing the movie’s exquisite distillation: “The greatest measure of the 19th century,” he says, “was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Does that sound like any Presidents we know? Or at least like the language used by that President’s most fanatical and slavish admirers? For of course the unmistakable but unspoken corollary is: “… and that’s OK.” The end, because it was so transcendently the right thing to do, and because it was done from the purest of motives, must be supposed to justify almost any means. All manner of corruption, skullduggery and abuse of power are to be excused if their object is noble enough. I wonder if that is a message that Hollywood would have been quite so willing to promote four or five years ago, when George W. Bush was President?
At a crucial moment in the vote hunting, Lincoln turns imperious: “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power, and you will procure me these votes!” he says to his underlings. And they do! More than one commentator has seen these words as a message from the left to President Obama, who is seen as not being firm enough with today’s Republican rascals in Congress, now transmogrified into the reactionary equivalent of the apologists for slavery in their view. David Denby of The New Yorker puts it like this:
The movie is, among other things, a message to the President: it is not enough to make fine and noble speeches. In democratic politics, you have to get tough and dirty. You have to use patronage, personal persuasion, threats, whatever is at your command. Lincoln made it possible for you to be President, and now — in order to get policies, which you know are just, through the Congress — you have to imitate the crafty and manipulative things he did. End of message.
Without applauding the policy, I acknowledge that some such message may indeed have been in the back of such minds as those belonging to the very progressive Messrs. Spielberg and Kushner. But I also think of the following passage, taken from The Guardian, by another left-wing critic of the President, Glenn Greenwald, who believes that his conviction of his own all-justifying rectitude is too great, not too little:
Political leaders and political movements convinced of their own Goodness are usually those who need greater, not fewer, constraints in the exercise of power. That’s because — like religious True Believers — those who are convinced of their inherent moral superiority can find all manner to justify even the most corrupted acts on the ground that they are justified by the noble ends to which they are put, or are cleansed by the nobility of those perpetrating those acts. Political factions driven by self-flattering convictions of their own moral superiority — along with their leaders — are the ones most likely to abuse power.
Mr. Greenwald, whose particular beef with the administration has to do with its indiscriminate use of drone strikes to kill anyone the President thinks might have the remotest connection to Islamicist terrorism, thinks that the same moral arrogance was to be found at the heart of the George W. Bush administration. Then his fellow lefties thought it a very bad thing; now, as it comes from the Obama — or the Lincoln — administration, it is a very good thing. He objects, very honorably, to the hypocrisy. But maybe such moral certainty is neither bad nor good so much as it is a measure of the extent to which all politics today has been reduced, rhetorically at any rate, to a quasi-mythical struggle between good and evil. That is what seems a very bad thing to me.