A Useful Story
Near the end of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) is walking away. Specifically, he’s walking away from his manservant William Slade (Stephen Henderson), who provides the point of view here. And so you see only his back, tall, lean, and slightly awkward, his flat-footed gait not quite a limp but not exactly solid, either. The shot cuts back to Slade’s face in close-up, the light warm to underscore his affection for the man now headed out of the White House to the carriage that will take him to Ford’s Theater.
You know what’s coming next, even if Slade does not, which makes the moment at once profound and painful, a moment premised on Henderson’s lovely performance throughout the film, Slade’s closeness to the president—visibly and emotionally—and Lincoln’s own gentle, sweet-natured respect when in Slade’s proximity. As you watch Slade lose sight of Lincoln, you hope the film won’t go on to do what it does, which is show unnecessary expository scenes, including the news of Lincoln’s assassination delivered to his young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and the grief enormous expressed by his wife Mary (Sally Field). But in this moment, Steven Spielberg does exactly what it needs to do, which is to make Lincoln into a man whose awkwardness and doubts and insights combine to earn the respect of the exceedingly worthy Slade.
Troubling and moving, the moment is not the only one in the movie to make Lincoln seem beloved by black people and devoted to their wellbeing. This may or may not have been an historical truth; evidence exists that the president saw the problem of slavery less as a matter of human rights that one of politics and his own legacy. But it’s undoubtedly a useful story, one that Lincoln might have appreciated.
Lincoln‘s mixing of fiction and history is underlined in its first scene, one that begins with a Saving Private Ryan-ish battle scene. Given the technologies, limits, and passions of the Civil War (the film’s action begins in 1865), it is an exceptionally horrific fight, soldiers in blue and grey uniforms having at it, with knives and fists and a few guns, men slipping and falling in mud and blood, men whose faces, black and white, are contorted and whose thrusts and punches are increasingly slowed and missing their marks, as their exhaustion overcomes them.
The camera pulls out from this frankly incredible shot to a wider and wider view of more and more carnage, ending with a cut to a weirdly stage-like image: Lincoln, who is dreaming this scene, is seated on platform, as if he’s an audience member at the battle-site, your stand-in. The commander in chief is imagining the consequences of his choices, the lives lost and the atrocities unleashed. He also dreams something else, two exchanges between two pairs of soldiers. The first has him addressed by a Private Green (Colman Domingo) and Corporal Clarke (David Oyelowo), two black men who point out what’s missing in the current effort, the prospect of black men voting, owning property and integrated into a future society. Lincoln appears to cogitate on these questions before he turns to a pair of (unnamed) white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan), who genuflect to their idol absolutely, reciting his Gettysburg Address.
The difference between the exchanges is striking, and suggests the political and cultural complications of race in the United States at this time. If racism remains entrenched, an immersive and lifelong experience even for advanced white thinkers such as Lincoln, it is also based on all manner of fictions and fears, acted out brutally and self-righteously. Here the film presents Lincoln’s deliberations as a function of his innate morality, as well as an emotional rightness, recognized even by the black men, who, you learn after they’ve expressed their concerns, can also recite the Gettysburg Address.
Surely, the scene speaks to the power of language, the deeply affecting brilliance of Lincoln’s speech, the truth it exposes and also reinforces. But it also reveals the power of fiction, rendered in language and in image. As much as Spielberg’s movie wields this power effectively, it also repeatedly distrusts its audience to keep up. To its credit, this visibly theatrical opening draws attention to themes including conversation and compromise, ideals and art, themes reinforced and complicated in the film’s focus on the political manipulations Lincoln managed in order to ensure that the 13th Amendment was passed by the divided House of Representatives before the end of the war (it has been passed by the Senate before this film begins, in April 1864). He explains his and the movie illustrates appropriately, by using lots of language—conversations in the White House and debates in Congress. Whether Lincoln is instructing Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) in the soliciting of votes (via a trio of paid Republican goons played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) or assuring his skeptical Cabinet that he is, after all, the president, “clothed in immense power!,” he conjures a sense that words matter. And you understand how Lincoln is at once remembering the expansion of that power by this singular man and also admiring what can achieve (it’s hard not to read in the film allusions to the current US government stalemates).
At the same time, as Lincoln is cajoling Mary into allowing her eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to follow his own path into the military or reminding Robert himself of his father’s influence—such that the son ends up assisting Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) and not on a frontline—you see as well the sometimes unsettling intimacy with which he wangles his authority. These glimpses of Lincoln at his most intimidating are set against other moments, when he tells jokes and stories to make his arguments (Secretary of War Edward Stanton [Bruce McGill]) delivers an especially comic response to one such moment), dotes on little Tad or listens to Mary’s servant Mrs. Keckley (Gloria Reuben) recall her son, a soldier lost in the war.
As made up or possible as these scenes may be, they draw a picture of a man wondrous and wise, heroic and emblematic. It’s the sort of picture that movies do especially well (especially when they’re gifted with a performer like Daniel Day Lewis, who is wholly compelling here). It’s also the sort of picture that’s less historical than hagiographic, one that might as easily be exploited by today’s Republican Super PACs or embraced by Barack Obama. It’s a picture of Lincoln as Slade sees him, a fiction perceived by a fiction, which is, of course, historical in its own way.