Spielberg's Portrait of Lincoln Is A Bust

Filmmaker's Biopic Is Etch-A-Sketch of American Icon

Lincoln in Black and White: Steven Spielberg fails to strip away the myths surrounding Abraham Lincoln.
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Lincoln in Black and White: Steven Spielberg fails to strip away the myths surrounding Abraham Lincoln.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published November 09, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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“Based in part on ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin,” the final credits say, and “in part” is the operative term here. Indeed, out of Goodwin’s title team of former (and in some cases continuing) political rivals, whom Lincoln appointed to his Cabinet — William Henry Seward as secretary of state, Salmon P. Chase as secretary of the Treasury, Edward Bates as attorney general — Spielberg’s “Lincoln” retains only the first, casting David Strathairn in the part. On the other hand, Thaddeus Stevens, introduced on page 302 of Goodwin’s 916-page book as “the fiery abolitionist congressman from Pennsylvania” and played here by Tommy Lee Jones, receives only three fleeting references after that, but in Tony Kushner’s screenplay for Lincoln he figures as a major player, and in terms of quotable lines and all-around Oscar-mongering he clearly comes in second after the title hero.

Juicy characterizations aside, I think that part of what keeps “Lincoln” so far away from any mythical past I can believe in is a form of political correctness that often resembles petrification. It’s so hot and bothered about getting things wrong that it can’t find many ways of getting things right. For starters, most of the black characters in this story — including the private and corporal Union soldiers, both apparently fictional, who are shown in the first scene meeting Lincoln and then proudly quoting him — are plainly 20th-century figures in speech and body language, not inhabitants of the 19th century. And more generally, and more damagingly, the obvious effort of Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski (who also shot “Schindler’s List’), to be mythical in almost every shot is far more rhetorical and hectoring than Ford (or Sergei Eisenstein, for that matter) ever was, especially in terms of the lighting, which sinks this movie’s interiors into the darkest gloom imaginable, the abject condition that James Agee once described as rigor artis.

Surely Lincoln and his cohorts didn’t experience their everyday surroundings as if they were silhouettes in a pretentiously underlighted art movie, but this Lincoln and these cohorts do. It’s obvious that some form of symbolism in which darkness equals slavery and light equals emancipation is at work here — so that the light pouring through the window of Lincoln’s office just after the House of Representatives passes the 13th Amendment is made to seem like some sort of divine orgasm. But since actual slavery and actual emancipation aren’t really depicted in this movie, only bandied about as abstractions, an abstract and clichéd visual design seems woefully appropriate.

This is preceded by the movie’s only real set piece: the suspenseful and climactic House of Representatives roll-call vote on the amendment. Spoiler alert: Slavery does get abolished. And this does allow Thaddeus Stevens to reward us with an epiphany of sorts that I won’t divulge. But the fact that Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) is shown following the count vote by vote while Lincoln himself is too austere to be shown engaged in such a vulgar activity is painfully indicative of the film’s approach.

Ironically, this comes after the film has devoted much of its running time to demonstrating how Lincoln had to lie and scheme in order to get the votes for that amendment — one of the points made by Kearns, as well as by Gore Vidal in his novel about Lincoln. Kearns and Vidal both maintain that this president was ultimately more pro-Union than he was anti-slavery. These writers also view their subject largely through the viewpoints of others who helpfully kept diaries or wrote more letters than Lincoln did: Vidal does his best to tweak and confound our more idealized notions about the man, and Kearns does more to accommodate at least some of those notions. But both authors, as scholars, are ultimately more concerned with how we think about Lincoln than how we feel about him. Spielberg, as usual, is more concerned with how we feel, and the factual material can only provide him with mixed signals.

Spielberg showed in “Saving Private Ryan” that whenever he had to combine contrary points of view about this country into something palatable as well as marketable, shots of the American flag waving in the wind remained the easiest way to drown his contradictions in torrents of rhetoric. Trying this time to combine revisionist details with familiar images of Lincoln as well as with an allegorical lighting scheme, he fails to find any equivalent form of unifying rhetoric. “Lincoln” remains at war with itself, seesawing relentlessly between the image of the clever conniver who knew how to manipulate others, which emerges from his contemporaries, and the inscrutable anti-slavery demigod brooding alone in his chambers, the quasi-religious image that we already had of a martyred saint. As long as the saint looks familiar and the lighting remains dark, maybe we won’t notice that such a composite portrait doesn’t add up to a single individual.

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s most recent book is “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition” (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Many of his writings may be found on www.jonathanrosenbaum.com.

Here’s the trailer to Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

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