Lincoln, by Steven Spielberg

Cinematic treatment of the Great Emancipator offers insights into changing attitudes towards the US presidency and the parallels between its 16th and 44th incumbents

January 24, 2013

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce McGill
Released in the UK on 25 January 2013

For at least 70 years, American films have expressed a fascination with the political, and even the spiritual, function of the presidency. Barack Obama has just been inaugurated for his second term. How timely, then, to have a new, and rather astonishing, movie that focuses on perhaps the most iconic president of them all: Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln is commemorated in statuary across the US, most notably the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. On the campaign trail that won him his first victory, Obama recalled how, during his time as a senator, he would walk over to the memorial for much needed time out and reflection. It seems interesting, therefore, to consider Steven Spielberg’s film in the light of Lincoln’s ongoing links with Obama, not least the ways in which the current president has consciously modelled himself on his great predecessor.

It is not hard to point out some of the parallels. Both arrived at the White House after legal careers in the state of Illinois and just a single term in Congress, raising issues about whether their limited experience might be a potential stumbling block for high office. Both took the bold decision to appoint rivals who had run against them for the presidency (William Seward in Lincoln’s case, Hillary Clinton in Obama’s) to the crucial position of secretary of state. But Spielberg also makes us reflect on connections that go far deeper.

Lincoln is a piece of full-blown Americana, its cinematic heritage as vital as its recreation of a specific political moment. It is replete with elegant and pellucid images, filled with autumnal light that illuminates the dark interiors of offices and bedrooms. The spirits of directors Frank Capra, David Lean, Ingmar Bergman and John Ford suffuse the film.

Although Lincoln certainly treats its subject with reverence, it also recognises his flaws - and gives a strong sense of what one character calls the “shady business” of the American democratic system. This is very different from the attitude of two earlier movies that focus on Lincoln’s days as a “prairie lawyer” before he arrived in Washington and venerate him almost to the point of hagiography: John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and particularly John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln (1939).

In offering us a less unblemished image of Lincoln, Spielberg may reflect a general trend towards a more questioning attitude towards the presidency. The main fault line may have formed with the traumas of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and then the Nixon administration, which David Frost recently summed up as operating in a climate of fear and paranoia. In more recent decades, then, cinema has suggested that the president and those around him are only human, and therefore contradictory and rich with imperfection. Oliver Stone’s visually dynamic JFK (1991) and his (more sympathetic than we might have expected) Nixon (1995) are touchstones in this moviemaking tradition. Another film that seeks to dramatise the compromises and challenges of office is Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days (2000), a taut thriller that charts the tangle of choices made by JFK to avert the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To get a richer sense of Spielberg’s contribution to the small collection of movies about Lincoln, I want to zero in on a couple of specific moments in the two I mentioned earlier. Young Mr Lincoln famously concludes with Abe (Henry Fonda) in silhouette, walking away from the camera and towards a storm. Spielberg echoes this iconic image of a silhouetted, lonely man approaching his destiny.

What is most interesting about Abe Lincoln in Illinois, starring Raymond Massey, is how it presents the president’s well-known oratorial skills. It shows his affinity for the funny story and also his capacity for soaring rhetoric, something that really shines through in a scene towards the end of the film where he debates with presidential candidate Stephen Douglas (played by Gene Lockhart). One shot repeatedly frames Abe with the flame of a streetlight illuminating the platform on which he stands. Intended or not, this serves as a powerful image of him striving to illuminate a collective consciousness.

In Spielberg’s film, this association between Lincoln and an illuminating flame is emphatically deployed in a beautifully rendered shot during the film’s concluding moments. We see Abe on his deathbed and then a close-up on a candle flame in which we see him addressing an audience. This delicate visual effect segues into a wide shot recreating the famous black-and-white photograph of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address on 4 March 1865. (We might see an echo of another Spielberg drama about the traumas of war, Schindler’s List, a film that also makes much use of a candlelight motif.)

As a popular film-maker, Spielberg has become synonymous with dramatising and recreating iconic moments of American history. In Lincoln, which focuses on the president’s final months in office as he fights to push through the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery, he is presented as both very earthly and a little bit more than human. He is compromised and prone to mistakes, and has a steely, aggressive quality that occasionally gets the better of him. Daniel Day-Lewis’ finely crafted performance is firmly rooted in the power of the understated gesture and gaze.

When I read the main source for the film, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) (the front cover of which describes it as “the book that inspired Barack Obama”), what struck me was the degree to which Lincoln was considered an outsider by the insiders in Washington. Early in the movie, as Lincoln emerges from narrating a recurring dream to his wife, he explains that he is “very keenly aware of my aloneness”. This plaintive statement makes him an authentically Spielbergian character, in the sense that many of the director’s other protagonists, both fictional and inspired by real people, would undoubtedly understand. In effect, his characterisation of the president emphasises two key aspects: this “alien” quality and his love of the spoken word.

All this may remind audiences of the current president. It is clear that Obama has consciously invoked Lincoln’s experience as an outsider in communicating his own political situation. An affinity for the spoken (and written) word also binds the 19th-century Abe and 21st-century Barack together, with Spielberg’s film revelling in the opportunities to convey the storytelling skills that express Lincoln’s paternalism and Everyman qualities while also clarifying the knotty political issues at hand.

In foregrounding Lincoln’s paternalism, domestically and politically, Spielberg again reverberates with the current Obama moment, since he too is a president whose children live with him under the White House roof. We see the stresses on Lincoln’s domestic life - any work/life balance seems an unattainable luxury.

At the heart of Lincoln is the idea of a journey, of finding a moral direction, as Abe strives to attain the right generosity of spirit, nationally and in his relationships with family and colleagues - while steering a country where Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) claims, “The inner compass has ossified.” For me, this generosity of spirit is best expressed in a relatively mundane, fleeting moment. After being hollered at by his colleague Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), Lincoln grabs Stanton’s hand tightly to stand firm with him as they await news from yet another killing field.

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