Spielberg’s Lincoln reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

The Pageantry of Rhetoric

How Spielberg’s Lincoln parlays the “Great Man” notion of history

By Armond White

“You begin your second term with semi-divine status,” the 16th President of the United States is told in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. The evidence of that status is in the film’s mythifying visual style that presents Abraham Lincoln as an icon–silhouetted, spectral, sculptural. The people around him, such as white and Negro Union soldiers relating their Civil War experiences of the 1865 Jenkins Ferry massacre during the film’s introduction, are also made into myth. (These weary men have already committed the Gettysburg Address to memory–a presentiment of the schoolboy’s homework in Minority Report.) Spielberg’s intention to line up with “the right side of history” turns the film into cult-of-personality deification. It’s on the side of power–which makes it one of the weirdest pieces of supposedly democratic Americana ever to come out of Hollywood.

The story in Lincoln dramatizes the President’s efforts to install a 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolishes slavery. His struggle is more than politically correct; it is presumed inarguably correct which takes the movie outside of history; outside of dramatic immediacy. Watching Lincoln is very much like observing a flesh-and-blood diorama. Everything is soon be settled (within 2 ½ hours); there’s no emotional suspense.

The trick Spielberg needed to pull off was to make the characters’ moral choices dramatically compelling; analyzing ethics in politics (those pragmatic procedures that deemed the Emancipation Proclamation “a military exigent”). Yet that’s where the film becomes dodgy–open to accusations of merely being a civics lesson, or worse: Spielberg’s equivalent to Richard Attenborough’s still-born hagiography Gandhi, rather than a companion-piece to his thrilling, brilliantly analytical masterpiece Amistad.

In Amistad Spielberg cannily transformed the issue of Slavery into the intricacy of Law; human endeavor and spiritual struggle were historically modified into argument and principle. The Amistad characters Cinque the African (Djimon Hounsou) and John Adams the political forebear (Anthony Hopkins) grappled with the fact of Slavery. This time Slavery is anthropomorphized. The introduction’s two docile and truculent black soldiers patronizingly prophesize modern attitudes; Lincoln himself (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) describes Slavery as a “disease” which distances it into abstraction. Lincoln attempts to dramatize mere rhetoric. Despite high-flown language, it turns the experience of human lives into platitudes, homilies and predetermined theorems.

For a lesser filmmaker, the prevarications in Lincoln would be disastrous. But Spielberg’s innate filmmaking resources consistently provide rhythmed imagery: Conventional–as when Lincoln’s aides race to get his disingenuous communique). Daring–as when Lincoln dreams his forthcoming struggle as an eerie ship voyage. The film is always something to look at. Congressional arguments are composed to show the vitality of faces and individuals–the elite body politic–like period versions of Francesco Rosi’s courtroom scenes in Hands Across the City and Salvatore Giuliano yet without Rosi’s worry about literal political corruption. Spielberg’s vibrant style just barely offsets the mundanity of parliamentary debate. The fact that Lincoln’s drama comes from predictable dialectic, rather than an in-the-moment philosophical conundrum like Amistad, reveals its insufficiency. Lincoln tilts toward magniloquence, using important sounding words and an exaggeratedly solemn and dignified style.

Spielberg shrewdly chose the histrionic Day-Lewis to impersonate Lincoln with twinkling eyes and a wily, high-pitched voice that humanize the icon. Day-Lewis’ long face is given built-in hollows and shadows that match the Lincoln Memorial and postage stamp figures while also suggesting mysterious depths. His every close-up suggests historical reverence. But this immortality contrasts the fascinating mortal portrayals by Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as W.N. Bilbo who act through their flesh, courtesy of Janusz Kaminski’s portraitist lighting that suggests the grain of historical painting animated by fluid camerawork. At one point (“It‘s too hard”), Fields’ transition from agony to aggrieved diplomacy is as much the director’s triumph as the actress’. Spader’s grungy agitator feels lived-in while Jones enlivens a cliché Congressional hack–his toupeed-role reaches back to a key idiosyncratic characterization in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

With Lincoln, Spielberg assumes his place in the descent of American cinematic mythmakers following Griffith and John Ford–a fact already evident–and earned–in Amistad. Here it’s done self-consciously. Not because it’s impossible to portray Abraham Lincoln any way other than worshipfully but because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (adapting a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin) manipulate Lincoln into a contemporary political paradigm.
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