Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

It is rare to see a cinematic civics lesson whose insights damn the fallibility of American government while insisting that there is always room to do good. The Hollywood studio system typically mandates that political content explicitly espouse cynicism or fawn over democracy; it’s easier to have audiences swallow one or the other, unclouded by ambiguity. That system permits few aberrations.

In that respect, Lincoln may be the first of its kind since 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck, and the best of its kind in longer still; a film whose political insights (unearthed by Tony Kushner’s unerring screenplay) proliferate and complicate in every scene, be they backroom deals in civil war-era Washington or domestic drama between Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife Mary (Sally Field).

The brilliance of  Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the story of the 16th president’s efforts to use congress to pass the thirteenth amendment to forever abolish slavery, is that it never lets unrelenting intelligence (and a view of American politics bleaker than anything in Spielberg’s career) drag it down into shallow despair.

Critically, it doesn’t conflate a love for Lincoln’s achievements with a love of American government. Lincoln himself professes that latter love, even as he flouts it constantly: he earns votes through bribery and cajoling, he lies both to fellow politicians and to the voters, and he betrays his personal principles with his rhetoric. Means to an end, and necessary ones: the people are ignorant and wrong, the politicians are self-involved or incurably racist, and as it goes one often has to check personal principles at the door to get anything done in politics.

But this is, after all, the 13th amendment we’re talking about here, and the race to have it passed by a largely unwilling house is as thrilling as anyone could have hoped, a political procedural that achieves tension by colliding moral dilemma with political pragmatism. In an early speech to his cabinet, Lincoln points out that his Emancipation Proclamation was made under legally tenuous grounds of war, and that it may be reversed by Reconstruction. The only permanent solution is an amendment, which is useful in the public mind only as a means of procuring black soldiers for the union; the loss of human property is undesirable if there are no white boys to bring back home. So in order to free the slaves forever, Lincoln must prolong the war by delaying and concealing a Confederate peace delegation.

The focus, as you may have gathered, is almost entirely on words. Indeed, Lincoln is an old-fashioned men-talking-in-rooms yarn, the sort that’s easy to under-direct — by placing the camera in graduated distances from the actor, rolling, and letting the talking do all the talking — but Spielberg here provides incontestable proof that his eye and sensibilities are not merely attuned to spectacle. His camera roves with a perfect understanding of the performances created by the script and actors, carefully marking out their actions and reactions as Michael Kahn’s editing finds each shot in the right moments, at the right pace. This craftsmanship makes men-talking-in-rooms scenes not only an exchange of compelling and complicated ideas, but a volleying of personal interests and emotional stakes, presided over by the film’s namesake.

Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a sight to see; be he telling folksy stories, forbidding his son from enlistment, or navigating selfish or cowardly democrats into a vote for the amendment, there is a constant impression of a moral and political genius at work. As both friend and foe ask more and more of him, he draws deeper and deeper from a well of empty assurances, concealed self-contradictions, and moral pleas disguised as political negotiations.

Late in the film that well does run dry, as Lincoln’s cabinet confront him with the deceit he has used to control them. The president, left with no options of persuasion, explodes into a moral authority that has quietly underlied the whole film, admits the risk of political failure that the amendment process brings, and insists that ethical imperative demands that they must take it. It is a moment whose simple, noble power would be lost without the preceding two hours of labyrinthine covenant and compromise.

Until that moment, Lincoln’s moral clarity has remained unspoken, except to radical republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), an ideological absolutist who demands racial equality and does not see fit to say any less in the house. But Stevens’s harsh rhetoric and dreams of enfranchisement make him a volatile ally, one whose ideals must be reigned in to ensure continued public and political support. Lincoln charges him to say what he knows is wrong, in order to do right.

That task lies at the heart of the film. Spielberg and Kushner know that the competing self-interests within institutions are tragic and intractable. They also know that knowing that is not enough. Lincoln is as moving a valorization of pragmatism as can be found: realistic, but never cynical; inspiring, but never trite.


Unknown said...

You are a great writer.

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