Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a meticulously structured sequence of debates, with distinctly opposed factions standing on either side of a punch-line that arrives almost always at the end to conclude the sequence. Take an early scene in Thaddeus Stevens’ office for example: a group of three stand to the right of the camera’s frame, urging an invisible judge to scrap the 13th Amendment; punish Lincoln for his erratic ways; while to the left stands the sole supporter of Lincoln’s urgent plea to realize the Amendment immediately, put an end to slavery and therefore the Civil War. The punch-line, a clear nod to the President, from Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who is only exposed at that instant, resolves the scene and allows progress to the next debate. In this way the movie assimilates a larger, grander debate from these vignettes, whose punch-line is delivered by Abraham Lincoln. Whether it be amidst a war field, conversing with colored fighters who dream of egalitarian America, or with the War Department Council, urging passage of the Amendment, or even in his own bedroom, Lincoln is tall and resolute and gracefully resigned to his vision and task at hand, and always provides the final answer, the model which others aspire for, which the movie celebrates.
Yet Lincoln’s answers aren’t beyond self-doubt (he’s unsure of his right to seize slaves as war property only to eventually set them free), or the pull of internal agony (he allows his son to join the war despite Mrs. Lincoln’s exclamation ‘How will I ever forgive you?’ which neatly epitomizes her emotional blackmailing); he is pure ideology that internalizes grime and realpolitik. I suggest this only enhances his effectiveness as a model; only blurs the line between right or legal and wrong, which is so especially relevant in a modern world; Spielberg’s picture thus emerges as a responsible biopic in the truest sense.
One must, of course, be wary of the artifice which makes this possible. Spielberg deliberately sets the stage for the most reliable of actors in every scene, making room for slowly mounting speeches repeatedly, abundant allowances for the enchanting storyteller, the great rhetorician, the patient husband, the affrighted father. Day Lewis seizes this with graceful ease; his dramatic timing is on the mark every time he makes a statement; he breaks his paragraphs through slow, delicate pauses that intrigue; at his loudest he is, if anything, sagely. He is amply supported: not only by a cast comprising Jones, Levitt, David Strathairn, and Sally Fields, all of whom play characters who are nuanced and meaty, and subservient to Lincoln, but also a camera that gleefully pans or revolves in a slow circle every time he delivers a short speech, sparse but evocative bursts of sound, modest lighting to highlight his mood and demeanor in every shot. In so many ways therefore this is more Day Lewis’ movie than Spielberg’s, although the latter has time and again removed himself with admirable dispassion from movies he’s made. Catch Me if You Can (2003) comes immediately to mind.
Why I found the model significant: Spielberg’s America of 1861 is a time of civil and political strife, of heated discourse and national chaos; lives are lost every day in a war the President tries to desperately stop; people are still sold and commodified; since then we’ve seen greater strife and bloodier wars. Yet it is eerie how much these words strike a bitter chord even now. Especially now:
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
The irony, as I see it, encapsulates not just the spirit of a great libertarian, upon which the movie repeatedly stresses, but also a great and ancient capacity for tolerance, an exasperated appeal for empathy among all the people living in the world.