Lincoln brings together one of the greatest directors of our time with one of the most important US Presidents of all time. Years ago, when news broke that Steven Spielberg was developing this film I was thrilled to imagine him crafting the definitive Civil War epic. Gettysburg would have nothing on this. A larger-than-life figure like Lincoln and his critical period in America’s history seemed like a perfect match for Spielberg as long as he could hold back on the lure of hagiography.
With a mythos like Lincoln’s this is no small task. In his classic work, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, Richard Hofstadter writes,
“The Lincoln legend has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology. Here is a drama in which a great man shoulders the torment and moral burdens of a blundering and sinful people, suffers for them, and redeems them with hallowed Christian virtues––”malice toward none and charity for all”––and is destroyed at the pitch of his success. The worldly-wise John Hay, who knew him about as well as he permitted himself to be known, called him “the greatest character since Christ,” a comparison one canny imagine being made of any other political figure in modern times.”
Though the icon of Lincoln can’t help but dominate the screen, Spielberg shows impressive restraint with his approach to the film. He sticks close to the book the screenplay is based on, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Restricting the scope to the final two months of Lincoln’s life and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment helps curb the danger of covering too much and oversimplifying the social and political upheavals underway.
Far from a large-scale Civil War piece, Spielberg focuses on giving us an intimate and accurate portrait of Lincoln the man. We see him in the trenches of the political process doing everything in his power to outlaw slavery while still ending the war and preserving the Union. He has to maneuver opponents inside and outside his party and dig up a seemingly impossible amount of votes. It’s a rare showcase of our political process in all the messy details and moral difficulty. We see Lincoln’s genius and his flaws both as a politician and a family man.
Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic and deserves all the praise he gets this season. His performance is captivating and dominates the screen even surrounded by an impressive array of supporting roles. This film is all about the performances and an enjoyable range of personality and humor livens the heavy subject matter. Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn … so much great talent.
While the characters shine, Spielberg’s restraint does stunt the film’s dramatic impact. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski seem to shy away so much from over-aggrandizing that the emotional rhythm never quite builds. The film is always interesting but lacks the cinematic heights of Spielbeg’s best achievements.
However, Spielberg impressively manages to make a political film without being political. There is no subtle propagandizing and no distortion of history to make a statement about modern America. Spielberg even ensured the film would be released after the election so the story wouldn’t be overshadowed and politicized. The script was in development in the early 2000’s and initially planned for release under the Bush administration. When interviewed, Spielberg emphatically rejects the notion that Lincoln is a political commentary.
However, watching it days after the re-election of President Barack Obama does create an interesting context. Obama has often acknowledged how Lincoln has inspired him. When asked what book other than the Bible he would bring into Oval Office he chose Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Comparisons are inescapable as both men are progressive centrists with a strong belief in government’s positive role in human flourishing. As Lincoln’s inspiring story came to a climax I couldn’t help but think “This is why Obama won.”
The film exemplifies the kind of bold political leader that Obama aspires to be and the salvific narrative of his Hope, Change, and Forward iconography. Guided by ideals of human rights and dignity, Lincoln pressed hard for the 13th Amendment even with widespread opposition and potential consequences. Is there any doubt that President Obama believed he was engaged in a similar crusade when he pushed his controversial legislation through Congress for the federal health care overhaul?
I think one key factor for Obama’s re-election was that (once again) he was able to cast a compelling moral vision that Republicans failed to match. Watching both party conventions brought out the rhetorical contrast sharply. Democrats emphasized sacrifice and service while the GOP’s language centered on self-interest. This strategy was understandable in light of the economy but underestimated our human longing for shared altruism.
Both parties acknowledge that President Obama is no Lincoln and time will tell whether or not his policies are a wise course of action for our nation. Many of Lincoln’s choices too, are up for debate and Spielberg doesn’t pretend as if there are no faults in this widely admired man. But like many of his other films, Spielberg’s Lincoln points us beyond the particulars (and here, the politics) to the fabric of divine law that unites all of us.
This film illustrates that amidst the complexity and pragmatics of government lies a deeper reality that can never be shaken. The best ordering of a society will always evolve and enjoy debate until the end of time. But the inherent dignity and worth of a human being made in the image of God is never up for grabs. The resilient power of this story in our nation’s history is so iconic because of its moral force. Racism is the original sin of our country and the painful road toward justice involved politics but transcended them entirely. President Lincoln embodied these ideas for America and helped write a new story for the recovering Union to carry into its future.
Lincoln draws our vision beyond the heroic men and women on screen to the universal truths that unite them. Spielberg’s filmography has always been filled with courage, loyalty, friendship, and a yearning for peace and justice. These are the universal moral truths that we consider to be self-evident.
They’re the real heroes of Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Anthony Parisi (@AnthonyParisi) is an independent filmmaker, photographer, and writer. For many years he has collaborated with New Renaissance Pictures to create a variety of web series, feature films, and television series. He also has a prolific background in documentaries, contributing to many National Park films seen across the country. As an artist and storyteller, he is deeply passionate about the visual arts and new possibilities for cinema in the digital age. Visit him online at www.anthonyparisifilm.com