'Lincoln': Fiction and History

The film presents Abraham Lincoln's deliberations as a function of his innate morality, as well as an emotional rightness.


Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, Fernando Wood
Rated: PG-13
Studio: DreamWorks
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-11-09 (Limited release)
UK date: 2013-01-25 (General release)

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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