It’s nearly impossible to make a good movie about Abraham Lincoln for the same reason it’s nearly impossible to make a good movie about Jesus Christ. Both of these savior figures have been divinized beyond the point of human portrayal. As personages of near-universal approval, how can you create them as three-dimensional characters? Everything Jesus or Lincoln says or does in a movie must be right, because they’re Jesus and Lincoln.
Spielberg’s Lincoln comes about as close to humanizing Lincoln as one could hope. Daniel Day-Lewis, known for total immersion in his characters, has wrought an indelible interpretation of the sixteenth president. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is reedy-voiced rather than grand, shambling rather than towering, and more than occasionally exasperating to his family and associates. He is prone to bouts of melancholy and long discursions of thought. Lewis, Spielberg, and playwright Tony Kushner have portrayed Lincoln as great not because of his moral certainty, but because of his ability to grope for what was best in the face of impossible moral circumstances.
At first I didn’t want to see Lincoln because it seemed like an insufferably self-important piece of Oscar bait. All Hollywood seemed to have turned out for what must have been the most crowded casting call since The Greatest Story Ever Told. Only in a film of this magnitude could Oscar winner Kevin Kline be proud to take the role of “wounded soldier.” Only in a production of A-list celebrity Democrats could the role of “woman shouter” be inhabited by—and this is how she’s listed in the credits—Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.
The film’s similarity to our current political situation is transparent. Lincoln, having improbably won re-election, is faced with an intractable Congress as he tries to win passage of the 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery permanently. Having taken the same high school Cliff’s Notes of American History as everyone else, I wasn’t aware until recently that the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free the slaves; in fact it kept those slaves in border states like my home state of Kentucky in bondage. With the war winding down and the Southern states likely to re-join the Union, Lincoln was left trying to ram perhaps his most important piece of legislation through a lame-duck Congress, many of whom held him in utter contempt. Sound familiar? Except the 13th Amendment makes the Fiscal Cliff look like a trip through the daisies.
Lincoln was assailed from the left by the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). He was bludgeoned from the right by conservative Republicans, led by former Senator Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook, who was required by law to be in this film, since he’s played Lincoln three times in other movies). And the Democrats, they were the Tea Party of the day.
There’s an important point when Lincoln discusses the meaning of equality using one of principles of Euclid, proclaiming this equality to be “self-evident” according to the laws of the Universe. But nothing is ever self-evident in Congress. In order to get the Amendment passed, Lincoln has to resort to everything short of bribery (not that that isn’t suggested). As the old Washington adage says, Don’t watch sausage being made or legislation being passed. Indeed.
Throughout, Lincoln is portrayed for what he was—a pragmatist whose conscience pricked him into transforming the Civil War from a battle to save the Union to a battle to end slavery. But he hardly believed in the equality of blacks and whites. In one scene, Mary Todd Lincoln’s black maid, Elizabeth Keckley, challenges the president as to whether or not he will be able to see free blacks as actual people. We watch his circumlocutions painfully before he finally, unsatisfyingly, says, “I believe I shall get used to you.”
But this is the problem with a film about Lincoln. We are dealing with His Eminence, Mr. Face-On-The-Penny. Something about Honest Abe sort of seeing black people as human makes it seem acceptable in a way that it would not be in any other character.
I also agree with Corey Robin that more could have been done to show the active role African-Americans played in ending slavery. Surely a film of this magnitude, crowded with this many historic personages, could have made time for a flashback to one of the famous meetings between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (who, by law, would have had to be played by Morgan Freeman.)
But what this film is about is mythmaking. And you can’t remake a myth overnight. It takes changing it in little bits and pieces. Like the remarkable scene that opens Lincoln where an African-American soldier confronts the president over the lack of black officers in black regiments of the Union army. There have never been so many scenes in a Civil War film where black people confronted Lincoln with his too-slow deliberativeness in embracing the cause of emancipation and full citizenship for freed slaves.
Ultimately, the film is about Lincoln, the title character. I doubt many other historical figures who led an important progressive change could have drawn a full theater on a holiday weekend in Louisiana, but Lincoln did. And maybe the mixed audience of blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals, and men and women that I saw the film with felt a little better for having celebrated a common American mythology together. And maybe we left with a little spark of optimism for the possibility of holding our always-shifting and ever-querrelous democracy together for another generation.