The Chronicle Review

Lincoln at the Movies

Dreamworks Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, The Kobal Collection At Art Resource, NY

Daniel Day-Lewis turned down the part of Lincoln until he felt he could overcome his reverence for the man enough to portray him.
November 26, 2012
Poetic Reflections in the Dark

Dreamworks Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, The Kobal Collection At Art Resource, NY

When John Ford first asked Henry Fonda to play Lincoln, the actor said no. "I can't play Lincoln. That's like playing God," he explained. "You're thinking of the Great Emancipator," responded the director. "This is the jack-legged lawyer from Springfield." Fonda relented, and the result was Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), the best film ever made about Lincoln—until now.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln both overturns a century of cinematic portrayals of the 16th president of the United States and challenges a decades-long scholarly, if not popular, vision of him as halfhearted and reluctant in his efforts to eradicate slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't just portray Lincoln, he inhabits him, giving us not a stick figure but a beleaguered leader whose crafty political genius leads to passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. The film restores for our time a vision of Lincoln as a tireless opponent of slavery and, in the process, speaks to the political problems we face as a nation today.

The most important films on historical topics have always been tied to cultural moments, shaping and revealing assumptions about the past. None, of course, has been more controversial than The Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith's silent film about the Civil War and Reconstruction. President Woodrow Wilson supposedly described it as like "writing history with lightning."

That film is remembered for its second part, which made heroes of white Southern Klansmen "protecting" themselves against radicals and blacks. The less frequently discussed first part offers a portrait of Lincoln (played by Joseph Henabery, who had a long career as a director). There is no reference to Lincoln as an emancipator; rather, he is a friend of the South, whose assassination, depicted in the film, removes his "fostering hand" from the process of Reconstruction.

Griffith came back to Lincoln 15 years later for Abraham Lincoln (1930). It remains the only biopic that attempts to cover the president's life in its entirety. Played by Walter Huston, from a script co-written by the poet and novelist Stephen Vincent Benét, Lincoln is a man of great physical strength, self-deprecating humor, paralyzing melancholy, and deep ambition. Much is made of his early life, particularly his love for the doomed Ann Rutledge. Once we arrive at the Civil War, slavery is barely mentioned. The theme of Lincoln's life is that the Union must be preserved, an aphorism stated repeatedly. Griffith reprises the vision of Lincoln as great reconciler. As the war nears its end he says, "I shall deal with them as if they had never been away."

Griffith was from Kentucky, and his nostalgia for the Old South fit with a general shift in historical literature focusing not on the moral issue of slavery but on the lost glory of Southern life. Sympathetic to the South, some scholars, like Charles W. Ramsdell, blamed Lincoln for starting the war.

But in the popular imagination during the 1930s, as Americans suffered through the Depression, Lincoln was seen as a man of the people and became an object of veneration. President Herbert Hoover, another Republican, invoked Lincoln repeatedly, but so too did President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, who used Lincoln to remind Americans of the challenge to preserve "a people's government for a people's good." Carl Sandburg's four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, which appeared in 1939, portrayed a folk hero whose uncanny leadership maintained American democracy through unprecedented conflict, a message not lost on Roosevelt as he faced a mounting crisis in Europe.

Filmmakers and playwrights, however, avoided Lincoln's years in the presidency, choosing instead to allude to cultural anxieties over democracy and totalitarianism indirectly, through reverence for a Lincoln who fought for justice.

The genius of Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, justly celebrated as a masterwork of American cinema, is visual as much as narrative. As the critic Geoffrey O'Brien observed a few years ago, "Ford seeks a cinematic language fit for democratic myth." Of less importance than what Henry Fonda says as Lincoln is how he looks, how he is framed by the camera. He always seems alone, even when in a crowd. He stares away, but viewers cannot take their eyes off of him. This is Lincoln as icon, foreshadowing Lincoln as monument. The film ends with a portent of what is ahead as Lincoln walks up a hill through a lightning storm toward his destiny.

Although Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Robert E. Sherwood, also stays grounded in New Salem and Springfield, Ill., it is the first film to deal with slavery directly. Lincoln denounces the "monstrous injustice of slavery" and delivers his "House Divided" speech ("a house divided against itself cannot stand") at the state Capitol as he accepts the Republican nomination to run for the Senate against Stephen A. Douglas. He is shown declaring that a nation cannot permanently endure "half-slave and half-free"—and also, in debates with Douglas, arguing against racial equality.

Raymond Massey's performance is not nearly as compelling as Fonda's, but it also conveys the dualism of Lincoln's character: mirth and misery. Despite some well-composed scenes by the director, John Cromwell, the effect is achieved here not by showing but by telling: Lincoln is "in one of his gloomy moods," someone says. "I want to be left alone," the man himself declares.

And so he would be, for the most part, until now. To be sure, cultural depictions of Lincoln have remained omnipresent. They include the television miniseries Sandburg's Lincoln, in 1974, which featured Hal Holbrook as Lincoln (in Spielberg's film, Holbrook plays Francis Preston Blair Sr., an adviser to the president known as "Lincoln's conservative"), and Lincoln, in 1988, with Sam Waterston in the title role. Anyone who came of age in the 1980s is likely to recall the Lincoln who appeared in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and declares at the end, "Party on, dudes." Yet neither those television shows nor the assorted other sightings of Lincoln in popular culture did anything to restore the president to the prominence he held in the 1930s as an exemplar for the times.

The decline in interest can be attributed to several factors. The civil-rights movement focused attention not on emancipation but on the disappointing results of freedom: poverty, disenfranchisement, segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. paid homage to Lincoln at the beginning of his "I Have a Dream" speech," delivered in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, but lamented that a century after emancipation, "the Negro still is not free." Others were less generous to the Great Emancipator. In a magazine article in 1968, and again in his 2000 book Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony, denounced Lincoln as a racist and white supremacist whose actions against slavery were dilatory and halfhearted at best.

Parallel to the civil-rights movement was a shift in scholarly focus away from elites and toward the social history of ordinary people. Historians examined the lives of the enslaved and began to grasp the role they played in shaping their own destiny. That trend culminated in the 1990s with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which began in the 1970s and, over the decades, has unearthed tens of thousands of documents and published multiple volumes that have revolutionized our understanding of the lives of African-Americans in slavery and freedom. The voices of the supposedly inarticulate were being heard.

As the focus shifted to slaves and their experience in the Civil War, Lincoln and the role of political elites came under new scrutiny. Some scholars argued that Lincoln did not free the slaves; rather, the slaves emancipated themselves by taking advantage of the chaos of war and running away. Lincoln, the story emphasized, issued an Emancipation Proclamation that applied only to those slaves who had not been reached by Union armies and that did not touch slavery in areas under military control, nor in the four slave states that remained in the Union. That was taken as proof of his lack of conviction. Furthermore, the document was stingy in its expression of abolitionist faith.

Criticism of the proclamation's prose was present from the start: One official in 1862 said it was "written in the meanest and most routine style." On the cusp of the civil-rights movement, the condemnation returned: The historian Richard Hofstadter proclaimed that the Emancipation Proclamation "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."

And so the powerful story of Lincoln and emancipation dwindled, a casualty of changing times as well as shifting assumptions.

Only recently has the narrative regained vitality. The years leading up to and following the Lincoln bicentennial, in 2009, yielded a wealth of new studies that provided fresh perspectives. Gone was the hagiography that characterized much of the writing of earlier generations. Instead, a more fully realized Lincoln emerged, one that emphasized the man's greatness.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (the basis for Spielberg's film) highlighted Lincoln's leadership and skill at bringing his competitors into his cabinet. James M. McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2008) offered new insights into the president's development as a shrewd military man. Harold Holzer co-chaired the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and brought out a steady stream of books, including Lincoln President-Elect: The Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 (2008), which illuminated Lincoln's political craftiness. Allen C. Guelzo also produced numerous books, including Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004) and Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction (2009), which reemphasized Lincoln's antislavery credentials. Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for History) explored how Lincoln's views of slavery changed—and steadily grew closer to that of the Radicals. All helped restore Lincoln to a position of prominence.

But he has also remained a target. Libertarian pundits have denounced Lincoln as a dictator and a tyrant who abused the authority of his office and ushered in the bureaucratic, regulatory state they despise. Works by the economists Thomas J. DiLorenzo (The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, 2002) and Charles Adams (When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, 2000), for example, have sold well and appeal to those less interested in the problem of emancipation than in the problem of big government.

Lincoln the statist plays an important role in Spiel­berg's film. The president justifies the use of war powers that give him broad authority to act, and he will stop at nothing in his relentless effort to win passage of the 13th Amendment. "I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and you will procure me these votes!" he demands at one point. Tony Kushner's screenplay brings Lincoln to the edge of tyrannical rule (his Democratic opponents certainly view him as a dictator) but then pulls back. Sandburg famously described Lincoln as a "man of both steel and velvet." There is plenty of steel to go around in the film, but it is the velvet that captivates.

Lincoln is nothing if not a Shakespearean tragedy. (Lincoln himself, a great admirer of the Bard, would have appreciated that.) We get not only a doomed, ambitious hero with whom we identify, but also domestic drama (Sally Field captures the often difficult yet sympathetic Mary Todd Lincoln, an "anti-Lady Macbeth," as one reviewer calls her) and well-timed comic interludes (James Spader plays the political operative W.N. Bilbo, a Falstaffian character).

Daniel Day-Lewis was initially offered his part in 2003 and kept turning it down until he felt he could overcome his reverence for Lincoln enough to portray him. The wait was well worth it. The actor summons Lincoln from the dead. His high-pitched tenor captures the voice described by contemporaries, as do the sadness in the eyes and the grin when he tells yet another story. This Lincoln is simultaneously melancholy and merry, despairing and determined. This Lincoln is fully human.

No actor has done more than the British-born Day-Lewis to bring American historical characters, fictional and real, to life on the screen: Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (1993), John Proctor in The Crucible (1996), Bill (the Butcher) Cutting in Gangs of New York (2002), and Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007). But Lincoln was something different. "I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being I never met," Day-Lewis recently told an interviewer.

But for a contrived opening scene (white and black soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address to the president) and an inability to decide where to end (there are at least four denouements), Spielberg's directorial vision has never been more spare and precise. The film conjures Lincoln's world, down to the ticking of his actual pocket watch as recorded at the Smithsonian's history museum by the film's sound designer. Spielberg manages to avoid the sentimentality that characterizes many of his other films. Each scene is a tableau that allows personalities to emerge merely from their physical relation to one another. There are moments that pay cinematic tribute to Ford, even occasionally to Griffith: Lincoln wrapped in a shawl; Lincoln in his stockings; Lincoln photographed from behind, forever moving away, ghostlike, just out of reach.

It was shrewd of Spielberg to focus on the final four months of Lincoln's life and to make the fight over passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives the centerpiece of the film. This is politics as hand-to-hand combat, and it portrays Lincoln not as idealist or moralist but as pragmatist and realist. Doing so does not diminish him but elevates him. It is a portrait that fits snugly with most recent scholarship, which should come as no surprise, since Goodwin, McPherson, and Holzer, among others, were consulted.

This Lincoln fits with our own cynicism about the political process. But it redeems the enterprise by suggesting that hard-fought battles can be won, that bipartisan agreement can be reached, even over the most intractable issues.

Perhaps that is why Spielberg delayed release of the film until after the presidential election. Lincoln shows that one person can indeed make a difference, but only when working with others—and only when willing to compromise. In a crucial scene, the Radical Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones) restrains himself from calling for equality for blacks, something he has agitated for his entire life, in order to hold on to the Democratic votes and abstentions necessary to pass the bill and abolish slavery. It is a hard lesson in political reality.

Spielberg's Lincoln is a politician for our time. The film restores his reputation as an emancipator, someone who was always antislavery and who even endorsed limited black suffrage, privately in 1864 and publicly a few days before his assassination. It does so by reiterating a faith in process, in slow, deliberate, incremental transformation, in proceeding on an issue only when the time is right, and then pouncing.

More important, the film serves to restore our faith in what political leaders, under the most trying of circumstances, can sometimes accomplish. In October, Spielberg donated $1-million to the super PAC Priorities USA, which supported President Obama's re-election. Now that Obama has won, the gift of this film may prove even more valuable.

Louis P. Masur is a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. His most recent book is Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (Harvard University Press, 2012).