Immense Power: An Existential Lincoln

The most interesting scene in Lincoln comes very near the end. It features a man and a woman — to avoid a spoiler, I won’t say who — reading the text of the Thirteenth Amendment by lamplight. Or rather, she is reading it to him. It’s a simple and understated scene, but for several reasons, it would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. It’s Steven Spielberg’s sharpest response to the Lost Cause, an upraised middle finger in the face of anti-abolitionism. (By a racist’s standards, it is literally obscene.) But more importantly, this scene is also the closing bookend to the first major monologue scene Abraham Lincoln gets in the film. That early scene shows the president delivering a sprawling soliloquy to his cabinet, in which he considers — inconclusively — whether issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was actually legal. Together, these scenes wrap the movie in a cloak of existentialism that sets Lincoln apart.

Lincoln publicity photo by David James, released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

Lincoln publicity photo by David James, released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co.

Eric Rauchway recently observed that different wars have different purposes at the movies. Films about the Great War are nihilistic. Movies about World War II are existential. Movies about the American Civil War are political, telling a story about emancipation. Rauchway acknowledges major exceptions in each case, but the rule holds in spite of them; in some cases, a film isn’t truly “about” the war in which it takes place. If Rauchway is right, what makes Spielberg’s Lincoln odd is that it pays extraordinarily close attention to the politics of abolition, yet consistently treats emancipation as a process of ethical self-assertion in defiance of apparently hostile reality.

Lincoln, in other words, is a film about conviction, but not about faith. For Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln, amending the Constitution is a leap into the dark.

In the first review I ever saw for the film, Roy Blount Jr. got this badly yet understandably wrong. In Blount’s mind, Lincoln is a movie about pragmatism and compromise. The film suggests, he writes, that “the road to progress … is seldom straight, entirely open or, strictly speaking, democratic.” Blount sees Lincoln’s willingness to travel the crooked paths of a political insider as heroic. Probably Spielberg does too; this film undoubtedly grows from our particular moment in liberal opinion, intervening in debates about populism, bipartisanship, and technocracy. But “progress,” as usual, is a misleading term. It betrays two key elements of this film’s Lincoln’s worldview. The first is his belief in justice; righting wrongs simply isn’t the same idea as progress, and the film’s Lincoln sees slavery as wicked, not old-fashioned. (He doesn’t compromise for the sake of social improvement; he compromises because he’s obsessed.) The second is this Lincoln’s apocalyptic belief in himself.

Lincoln’s Lincoln is desperate. He has one idea deep inside him — “marrow deep,” as he says in another context — that overrides every other. By 1865, it is his reason for existing. Every power he holds, every good he believes in, and now even the perpetuation of the Union and the Constitution, are secondary to the imperative of ending slavery. He doesn’t know what will come afterward for the country. He doesn’t know how former slaves will survive. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t particularly care, what civil rights black Americans will have, or whether they will ever reach full social equality. He simply knows that this thing must be done, and he must do it, and he must do it now.

In fact, every significant character shares in this moral moment somehow. Nobody with deep principles in this film really seems to be known by anyone else. Each of them, instead, has political conviction insofar as he knows himself.

The strongest men of the film — Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and William Seward — are entirely self-contained. No matter what they are saying at a given moment, almost anything could be happening behind their eyes. Each of the swing legislators in Congress, on the other hand, makes his emotions painfully obvious, and for all of them, deciding how to vote on the Thirteenth Amendment is a process of reluctantly coming to terms with their deepest feelings. Some of them collapse from exhaustion and grief as they vote. Subplot characters also struggle to know themselves. Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, must enlist in the army, even if it destroys his parents, to preserve his self-respect. Mary Lincoln, having lost herself along with her younger son, must face her emptiness and invest herself in her husband instead; in some ways, as a result, she serves as a more forthright voice of Abraham’s authentic character. Even venal, frivolous men like political fixer W.N. Bilbo are useful because they relish and admit their venality.

In this movie, the only people acting out of devotion to rules or constituencies are racists and appeasers. Everyone of character is acting from within himself.

That, and not just marketing, is why this film is called Lincoln instead of, say, Emancipation, even though it doesn’t remotely qualify as a biopic. And it’s part of why the major Lincoln speeches quoted in the film sound false here. “The better angels of our nature” might be consistent with this Lincoln’s ethic; “binding up the nation’s wounds” and “taking increased devotion to that cause” are not. Even a wonderful scene in which Lincoln invokes his love of geometry to assert human equality — a scene based on a close reading of Lincoln’s intellectual influences — is false, for in this scene, the explicit moral reasoning is another façade for Lincoln’s internal struggle to do what he already knows he should. This Lincoln is performing a moral conclusion, not reaching or defending one.

But this version of Lincoln, scripted by Tony Kushner and enacted with astonishing realism by Daniel Day-Lewis, does get close to a very important truth. This is a Lincoln living out the Day of Judgment. Lincoln is a movie about the Civil War as the end of the world. It is full of shadows and silences; we can hear the ticking of clocks in the background of some conversations, and the lamps used in nighttime scenes are so dim that we perceive the moonlit sky as blue instead of black. The handful of battlefield shots look like glimpses of the pit of hell. Lincoln possesses the erratic mental clarity of a man about to go mad. All of this is as it should be. In Lincoln, we get a movie that treats America’s bloodiest war as a nightmare.

But the real Civil War wasn’t just Lincoln’s nightmare. A crucial line that made it into the trailer, “I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power,” has a far different meaning here from what it should have.

As it happens, without making specific plans to do so, I watched Lincoln in a little theater in Center City Philadelphia, on the southeastern edge of Independence Hall National Historical Park. This cinema sits next door to the site of Alexander Hamilton’s house, a few steps away from the plots where James Wilson and Benjamin Rush lived, and within sight of the First Bank of the United States and Carpenters’ Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774. In other words, I stumbled into a showing of Lincoln at the ground zero of American federalism. Perhaps that has influenced my reaction to the film.

In any case, what bothers me about Lincoln is that for all its narrowness of focus on a political process, it hardly ever honestly acknowledges the constraints — whether intellectual, ideological, institutional, economic, or, beyond the walls of Congress, political — that bound its figures. It presents us with a story about man in time, but not man in human space.

This Lincoln certainly does know how Congress works, but the film still treats congressional lame ducks (and a newly reelected president) as momentary gods, free, for a few weeks, to come to terms with their true selves. The film’s problematic treatment of its black characters, none of whom play an active part in emancipation, is structurally just one part of this flaw. Ultimately, there are no voters, petitioners, editors, pamphleteers, or poets — black or white — and no judges, languages, myths, faiths, dreams, or communities. There are no state legislatures taking a year to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment after Congress passes it. In a sense, there aren’t even any congressional radicals spurring Lincoln to act on slavery; the film creates the impression that Lincoln infected the radical Republicans with a sense of urgency, not the other way around. In Lincoln, there are just gods and generals.

For all its attempted honesty about the grubby details of how great events happen, therefore — and for all the strengths that make it possible for me to recommend it to other viewers without hesitation — Lincoln ultimately cheats us out of a better story about justice, or power, or humanity. It doesn’t puncture a national myth about individual freedom or goodness or inexorable social progress. It embodies one. At its core, this is a movie about Americans without an America.