|The only known photograph of Abraham Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address.|
An English professor I once had for a Civil War literature class told us that any historical film tells more about the time in which it was made than the time that it attempts to depict.
She used the cornerstones of Civil War film — which are also arguably the cornerstones of film, period — to back her up: Namely, the incredibly-cringe-inducing Birth of a Nation & the still-pretty-cringe-inducing Gone With the Wind. She believed that, culturally speaking, the Civil War never ended, & with each major cultural milestone, America was still trying to resolve the questions it left open. Thus, Birth of a Nation was the first film epic, while Gone With the Wind was the first modern, full-color epic. & they both had A LOT to say about whites, African-Americans, & the Civil War.
All of which is to say that I wonder what my professor — let alone D.W. Griffith or Scarlett O'Hara — would have to say about the Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln. The film is a creative crossroads of two things I've been culturally trained to be very wary of: Overhyped, "excellent" films (because they rarely, if ever, live up to their hype) & historical films (see above).
& yet, somehow, Lincoln is the exception that proves the rule. I chalk it up to the fact that you have Hollywood's finest living director (Spielberg) & its finest living actor (Daniel-Day Lewis, in the title role) adapting a slice of perhaps the best nonfiction book of the last decade (Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals). More often than not in Hollywood, too many cooks spoil the soup.
But not here.
The film is so well paced, shot, acted, written, & edited, it seems to approach the textured richness of a Citizen Kane or high-period Hitchcock. The way funny scenes transition into serious ones, the iconic into the mundane, the public into the private, was near-effortless. The film strikes the rare balance between grand, overarching narrative & meticulous, historically-accurate detail that thrills people who know next-to-nothing about Lincoln just as much as those who have spent their lives investigating his world.
For me, it was the little touches that did it. The ugly patterns on the floor where Tad falls asleep while looking at glass negatives of slaves; the parade of blankets & shawls that adorned most of the characters who passed through the drafty, half-delapitated White House (not to mention the fingerless gloves on the telegraph operators); the cigars smoked by Seward & Grant; the jewelry worn by Mary Todd; the way that the martyred Lincoln was turned sideways on his deathbed to compensate for his height.
Grounding all of this detail was Daniel Day-Lewis's tour-de-force performance of Lincoln, easily his best in a career of bests &, I believe, will earn him a third Best Actor Oscar. Lincoln is nothing but an enigma in a way that few other Americans are (off the top of my head, I'd say only Washington, Jefferson, & Elvis come close, & even then, Lincoln probably beats them); usually to play Lincoln is to be blocked by the audience's idea of Lincoln. This is what makes Day-Lewis's performance so remarkable. He doesn't fall into caricature or ignore the man for his own incarnation with the Lincoln name, he seems to embody the man in a way that is altogether astounding.
By the end of the film, the use of light & shadows was tricking me into believing that it was like old photographs brought to life, all while spinning the many moods that make Lincoln so fascinating (& near impossible to pin down): Bawdy extrovert, sullen introvert, family man, backwoodsman, intellect, charmer, trickster, & politician. The latter is the most important because it anchors all the rest. Just like the real Lincoln, Day-Lewis often overlays several of these moods at once, all brought into focus by his political genius. Over & over, his Lincoln downplays himself only to come out of the woodwork with a conviction that no one could see coming, but always seemed to perfectly summarize what needed to be done & why. It's a bit like how Columbo solves a case at the end after acting the rumpled fool or how they say Bob Dylan could write his sophisticated early folk songs after talking like a political neophyte's kid brother — it was an all-American performance of reinvention, with gestures of love, toil, & inspiration that would've made Melville's Confidence-Man weep with pride. If this is the true American, then Lincoln is its archetype. He didn't just unite the nation in the past tense, he unites it in the present.
Greil Marcus writes about going to see The Godfather in 1972 & how it was the only time he can remember a theater being split evenly between white & African-American patrons. The film seemed to speak to both groups, with its Italian-American fable for the whites, & the prototypical "gangster" story for the African-Americans, which Marcus connected to the era's high period of soul (just think of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On & Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On! to map the limits), & would set the stage for gangsta rap two decades later.
Similarly, when I went to see Lincoln, there seemed to be just as much of an equal distribution between whites & African-Americans. Furthermore, the African-Americans would softly talk back to the film when an African-American character had a line that was a perfect twist of truth & irony. "Mmm-hmm," "That's right." It made the film feel like a very subdued church. I find it hard to believe that Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind inspired the same kind of engaged reaction from their African-American audiences.
Spielberg shrewdly frames the film with Lincoln's two greatest speeches — The Gettysburg Address & his Second Inaugural. The Gettysburg Address is recited to Lincoln, by blacks & whites, soldiers & laymen, the words weaving a tapestry of Americas into an America. They say the greatest sign of change brought on by the Civil War was that, before the war, people said "These United States," & after the war, "The United Sates" — if this is true, this opening scene fits right in. Plus, we see the many moods of Lincoln in a matter of minutes: In one moment, the bold leader, in the next, the slightly perturbed genius who doesn't need his fans to prove their loyalty by reciting his words back to him.
The Second Inaugural comes at the end, after Lincoln had died, when the camera went into a close up of a candle & then into what looked like an old black & white film of Lincoln talking, which then expanded to portray Lincoln in front of the Capitol giving his famous address. This ending scene was a rare dividing point in the film. Both the couple to my left (an African-American man & woman) & my wife on my right (a white woman) thought it was hokey & should've been left on the cutting-room floor. I loved it, if only because it seemed to be Spielberg addressing the Civil War tradition (which is to say, the American tradition) in film, using the flickering candle & the weird black & white Lincoln to harken back to the portrayal of Lincoln in Birth of a Nation.
It also allowed the film to end with Lincoln's greatest words — & with malice toward none, with charity for all — mixing the man & myth, fact & fiction, living life & history. Perhaps the film will age quicker than we expect it to (have you seen Glory lately?), but for the time being, it seems to bring to life a man & his time.
As a different president supposedly said about a different film depicting Lincoln, Spielberg's Lincoln seems to "write history with lightning."
Only that president was Woodrow Wilson.
& the film was Birth of a Nation.