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A Lincoln Convertible
There were, at last count, at least 16,000 books written about the 16th US president, Abraham “the Great Emancipator” Lincoln; there may be scores more added in the next publication cycle following Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, which is itself at least the 12th movie about him, though the first made in 72 years (not counting Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
The real-life man has inspired creative enterprise ranging through deliberate misrepresentation (Birth of a Nation) and heartbreaking poetry (Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain!) to cameo or nominal appearances, such as the steam frigate named for him in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
With all that material to draw from, Steven Spielberg chose to focus on one small portion of just one book, Doris Kearn’s Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Hardly the definitive biography, despite being the bestselling one (partly because it was named a favourite book by one Barack Obama), Team of Rivals, as its title suggests, focusses, not on the human being, but on Lincoln’s strength as a politician. The book was dismissed by the Harpers magazine Easy Chair columnist, Thomas Frank, as “uninspiring to the point of boredom” and its chronicling of the events surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution banning slavery as “an unremarkable arrangement, documented in an unremarkable book, all of it together about as startling as a Hallmark card”.
Team of Rivals treats the people at the centre of the passage of the 13th Amendment like their modern Wall Street equivalents: Thaddeus Stevens leads the Radical Republican Team to work with others who usually want the exact opposite to achieve a lasting good: Teams, you see, of rivals, all trading horses aplenty, and each scrambling for the main chance: a timeless picture of modern Washington, without the cooperation.
Spielberg’s film, Frank concludes, goes well beyond justifying compromise to justify corruption; indeed, the movie’s most memorable quote may not be the “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us” IMDB.com pulls, but the last line spoken by Tommy Lee Jones’ character, taken word-for-word from the real life Thaddeus Stevens: “The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Despite such dubious source material, and despite his own declaration that he never saw his film as a biopic, but as “a portrait, meaning one painting out of many that could have been drawn over the years of the president’s life”, Spielberg has, in Lincoln, created a living historical moment that few could deny was as genuine a picture of the Great Emancipator as could be made.
Literally in-between the scenes of the political machinations behind the actual passage of the amendment he uses as the film’s pacing engine, Spielberg creates many small pockets of drama, in each of which Daniel Day-Lewis channels Lincoln as though Honest Abe had himself stepped into the picture. Every scene sharpens the portrait of the human being at the centre of the political animal, every scene goes deeper than the one before it into the soul of the most admired politician in US history. The passage of the amendment, the film reveals, was as ugly as its aim was beautiful; and the key to understanding their interconnection is the Day-Lewis performance.
It took Spielberg 12 years to make his Lincoln film, five of them spent waiting for Daniel Day-Lewis to accept the role, and another full year after he did, to allow Day-Lewis’ diary to clear. In the anguished scene in which Abraham Lincoln—not Daniel Day-Lewis—tells Mary Todd Lincoln that he lives with the pain of the loss of their son every day, the hurting human upon whom the larger-than-life statesman is founded is revealed:
This was the person who made possible, in a complicated world of quickly-shifting alliances, the passage of an amendment that half his country actively did not want in 1865; and it still took another full century for the black people freed by it to get the right to vote: The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
Spielberg underlines his decision to limit his film’s perspective strictly to Lincoln’s responsibility for the 13th Amendment and the end of the Civil War by deliberately sidestepping the biggest load of dramatic pay dirt in Lincoln’s life: the assassination at the Ford Theatre is reported, in Lincoln, secondhand, with Spielberg’s cameras focussing on his youngest son watching a play (not Our American Cousin) in another theatre. Between his first scene, in which he is depicted, as he historically was, as the friend of the American soldier, and his last, in which he is merely a corpse, the man Lincoln emerges clearly; and the decisions of one of the most determined filmmakers in Hollywood are vindicated.
Until the current officeholder, there has not been an American president who was as deeply loved and admired; but Abraham Lincoln is remembered for attaining a lofty human goal, even if largely by less-than-admirable methods.
Spielberg’s film about the 16th American president could, perhaps, hold a message for the 44th: that you can be loved by all for who you are, but you will only be remembered forever if you actually achieve something.
Lincoln/ Steven Spielberg/ 2012/ 150 mins/ Biography-Drama-History-War/Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
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