December 4th, 2012
Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts I had after watching Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln last night. It assumes you’ve seen the movie or have some idea what it’s about. Warning: there may be some spoilers here. My son disclaimed interest in seeing this movie, saying he already knows how it turns out. But there are many surprises along the way…
Shabbiness. This is not a clean and sparkly costume drama like Anna Karenina. They’re going for gritty period authenticity here, not fairyland. Lincoln visits Grant’s field HQ, a nice white house in the country with a pillared porch, and there’s mud all over everything. The rooms in the Capitol and the White House are smoky and dingy. No vacuumed wall-to-wall synthetic carpet, no gleaming linoleum, no sterile cubbies. No sterile anything. At a hospital, they dispose of amputated limbs by trundling them in a wooden wheelbarrow covered with a dirty sheet to dump them in a shallow pit out back. The wheelbarrow drips puddles of blood all along the way you wouldn’t want to step in. At the movie’s closing scene, Lincoln’s second inauguration, he is surrounded by a crowd of people standing in front of the Capitol, listening. They all look unkempt, their clothes ill fitting and probably not too clean. Nobody looks too well washed. The rich and powerful don’t look a whole lot better dressed than the hoi polloi. No orange tans and pink scrubbed faces and sleek suits like you see nowadays – not on the floor of the House of Representatives, not in the President’s offices, nowhere. Almost the only exception is Rep. Atkins, the dapper floor manager in the fight for the Thirteenth Amendment on the House floor. He stands out for his dapperness, meaning his cheeks look scrubbed, his clothes reasonably well tailored and well fitting. This was a time when there was no shampoo as we know it – getting your hair really clean was next to impossible. Lincoln’s hair takes on an almost independent life, practically deserves its own place in the credits.
Unadventurous old-fashioned film-making and story-telling. Straightforward narrative, for the most part in simple chronological order, from a single detached point of view, the omniscient observer. Not much fancy camera work or framing of scenes. Score reasonably restrained, but still – at times obtrusively – constantly commenting, telling us what to feel. Sense after about half way through that a LOT of scenes are set pieces for Lincoln’s oratory, for him to expound his agonized or eloquent or homey or whatever thoughts while other characters sit around and listen with varying degrees of appreciation. From these standard, hoary Hollywood materials, Spielberg has fashioned a masterpiece. There’s life in the old girl yet! Movie rides on the intelligence of the screenplay, the quality of the acting, and the scrupulous craftsmanship of the director.
Moral complexity. The movie has been criticized for the way that blacks are mostly in the background. I don’t think these criticisms are justified. The movie’s very first scene is an ugly, hand-to-hand melee in which black soldiers fighting on the Union side gradually overcome and kill all of their Confederate adversaries. Men are stuck with bayonets, strangled, held under water, stomped on the head into the mud. The next scene is an interview between Lincoln and some of the victors/survivors. A black soldier takes him to task for not going far enough in the cause of racial equality. It is almost the only scene in which Lincoln seems ill at ease and inadequate to the task; a magnificent framing device, at once powerful and subtle. For the rest of the movie, blacks are mostly in the background of the film’s action, because, with regard to the actual events depicted, that’s where they were. Much later, Lincoln rides through a battlefield, picking his way through heaps of dead, grotesque piles of corpses from a battle that he knows did not need to take place except that he –Lincoln – has made ending slavery a priority over ending the war. At the end of the movie, when we hear him speak those amazing words from the Second Inaugural Address about requiting with blood for every stroke of the lash from the bondsman’s two hundred years of toil, we know what personal pain those words carried for him, and it elevates them from the realm of mere oratory, however magnificent, to a cri de coeur. Meanwhile, Lincoln struggles against his eldest surviving son’s desire to join the army, allowing him to do so at last but making sure he has a relatively safe job, and knowing that another father’s son may die for that decision. And at the same time Lincoln is fighting to preserve the Republic, which in his mind stands for preserving democracy and the rule of law, he plays fast and loose with the Constitution and engages in the flimsiest forms of legal pettifoggery to bamboozle Congress into ending slavery. If he is a hero, it is not because he was pure as Galahad. Far from it.
Representative Thaddeus Stevens, the great abolitionist from Pennsylvania, sleeping with his housekeeper. I will admit to a small frisson of unmerited pride in my chosen home state when I learned that Mr. Stevens was born in Vermont, although he represented a Pennsylvania district in the House. After the antislavery amendment is passed, and the day of celebration is over, Stevens goes to bed. The camera pans across his creaky old body releasing itself into the mattress, to his bedmate, a black woman. It’s played a little for shock effect, and for the effect of adding to Stevens’ heroism. Whereas Lincoln, asked by his wife’s maid what he thinks will happen after the war when all blacks are free, says we’ll have to learn how to get along, which makes him seem a man thoroughly of his time, by contrast Stevens’ loving interracial relationship makes him seem a man way way ahead of his time. But even he keeps it a secret so as not to create scandal; and it inevitably echoes of less laudable sexual relationships between powerful white men and the domestic help.
Level of personal vituperation in politics. Our latter-day politicians are virtuosos of euphemism, innuendo, dog-whistles, code-words; but these guys reveled in name-calling. They indulge exuberantly in verbal mud-wrestling. There’s a scene where Stevens, goaded almost beyond his limited endurance, borders on the scatological in describing in detail the lower orders of life to which he claims his contemptible interlocutor belongs, ending by observing that the fellow should be smashed underfoot. It would be even funnier if we hadn’t seen somebody doing just that in the movie’s opening sequence. There are many such examples of high fluency and verbal inventiveness used as assault weapons. Part of that is probably just the playwright, Tony Kushner, having fun with language. Some of the glee with which Thaddeus Stevens describes an opponent on the floor of the House to his face as disgusting slime is probably due to the fact that it’s Tommy Lee Jones who is playing him. But it’s also true to the times. It was a period when educated people deployed spoken language with more potency and sophistication and in some ways – despite our freedom with fuck and shit and so on – with less inhibition than we do now. Anyway, those who decry the lack of civility in modern political discourse should take note.
Lincoln outsized compared to the other characters, literally and figuratively. In every dimension, physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, he is simply larger. Only the volcanic Thaddeus Stevens comes close. Of all the many vividly drawn characters in the movie, Lincoln’s wife Mary alone is depicted as fully in the round as he, a woman of surprising resilience and combative intelligence, but even she is a much smaller personality. This is partly a function of the film’s focus – it’s entitled Lincoln after all – and partly a (probably) accurate vision of what it is like to be around a truly great man. Great means big. He dwarfs us. So when a room full of ego-driven, aggressive, powerful men falls silent while he spins out one of his befuddling parables, it’s psychologically plausible. It’s not that he sucks all the oxygen out of the room the way a histrionic narcissist does, it’s that when he takes action there’s simply nothing else to watch. Sometimes they rebel – Sec. of War Stanton fulminates I can’t stand another one of your stories and hustles away – but the rest stay and listen. There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s him.
Lincoln’s weariness. His gait like an exhausted plow horse plodding home after a long long day in the field. The visible effort he puts into bending and unbending that long body standing up or sitting down. The default mode of his face – brooding exhaustion. The horrible personal cost of being him. He gets more stooped and hunch-shouldered as things go on, as if he is literally being dragged down by the weight of his burdens and also by the continuing need to meet his fellow beings on their level.
Lincoln’s mode of thought – narrative, analogy, metaphor. Oh, he’s capable of powerful legal and political logic. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough to do the job of ending slavery and might be legally wrong, coupled with his explanation of why the Thirteenth Amendment has to be passed through Congress now now now before the war’s end, is an almost breathtaking exhibition. This is a guy who Thinks Things Through. Somebody once said of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum that he was almost impossible to play with in a duet because nobody else could think that fast. One gets the idea Lincoln was like that, as a lawyer and politician. But: his default mode of thinking is essentially via image and metaphor; dare I say it, poetic. Nearly every time he is called upon to make a considered response to something, whether it is a question, a situation, an interpersonal problem, the first place his mind goes is to a story, an example, a concrete reality. It is this ability to find a bridge of resonance between one set of circumstances and another, and thus between one person or group of people and another, that is his most characteristic mode of thought.
Not just an exercise in antiquarianism. Given our very recent history, it is jarring at first to have the party of civil rights be the Republicans, and even more jarring that the Radical Republicans are the most progressive ones, while the Democrats are the party of white racial solidarity. But then people of my generation may remember that it was in fact more or less this way well into our childhoods, until Nixon struck his deal with the devil in 1972 and Reps and Dems switched places. But what kept striking me over and over is how we still are repeating the same essential conversation over and over, that everything in American politics either harkens back to race or is fundamentally about race, and that all the basic attitudes we encounter today are pretty much the same as those expressed in the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Instead of talking about slavery, we’re talking about affirmative action and voter suppression and discrimination and minority rights and immigration and so on. But the things we (I mean mostly white people) are saying about these subjects, although couched in radically different language, are mostly things that might have been said 147 years ago. But there is a difference. In the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment, the Democrats tried to force Thaddeus Stevens to say what he in fact believed, that the point of ending slavery was to promote equality of the races. Such a bald, radical statement might have scuttled the project. So he swallowed hard and pretended that he was only interested in equality before the law. To the extent that he would not have to mount such a pretense today, that is the measure of our progress.