On Realism and Telling History: ‘Lincoln’

Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ is a story molded out of cold facts and softened by clever anecdotal interludes between Lincoln and his advisors (vice president, wife, and the people who look after his household). Of course Abraham Lincoln is so well-known to most audience members that the historical backdrop is easily set, allowing the storyline to progress from a relatable place.

Lincoln’s second term, which brought the Thirteenth Amendment and the official end of slavery in the United States of America, was tumultuous. Undoubtedly a turning-point in world history, the story is told with a certain graveness, off-set by a clever playfulness. Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln is as witty as he is show-stoppingly philosophical. He is clearly presented as a man of the people, for the people, and that is exactly why he feels the need to lead them -however most unwilling- into a new era of history, in which more people are free.

The opening shot is on the battlefield: gushing blood, stabbing, strangulation, and all sorts of vicious killing is afoot. The scene is so vile, that most people might not notice the racial underlines being played out, but we are swiftly led through to the next scene, where Lincoln is holding conference with two black soldiers- one is a colonel. The men talk about their experience and goals with their president. One is starstruck and somewhat giddy, while the other, the colonel, steps forward to speak up while he has the chance, “it’s good that you’re aware” he says of Lincoln’s knowledge of black troops courage and strength in the current war. He presses Lincoln, saying that since he is aware, perhaps it is time for him, the leader of the country, to admonish the people to welcome that courage, these men, alongside them as free men. He walks away quoting Lincoln’s great speech, his back to the president, who must then, as this particular version of the story goes, decide whether or not he will make his second term about his beliefs or about his reputation.

What this telling captured was the natural, oft-untold, disparity between acting -in matters of life and death- on principles, and experiencing the effects of those principles when they come to light. When Lincoln is asked by his wife’s attendant, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) if he can stand the presence of black people as his equals, he says “I could get used to you”, which is unsettling and disarming: is this not the man who is in the midst of fighting for the freedom of slaves, as leader of the United States? Indeed, and that is what this particular story focuses on, but principled actions and their effects don’t necessarily lead to comfort. These kinds of actions make new kinds of worlds, and even the people who dreamed them up must treatd lightly. It’s cold and uncomfortable to see lines of uncertaintly in power being played out, but it is a truth that isn’t shown on screen enough, and I quite appreciated the honesty of that moment.

Lincoln was pioneering the implementation of ideas of freedom without knowing what it would be like to live in the world he was building through the power of policy. Then again, Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, who persevered hard-handedly for decades in the face of astounding, repulsive adversity to make policies that benefit all citizens- black, white: everyone.

His anti-racist, abolitionist stance was clearly viewed as bullish and appeared foreign to most of his peers, even other progressive Republicans, mainly because of the aforementioned separation between policies of freedom and liberty and the actual day-to-day experience of those ideas growing in society. Jones’s character lived his life with a black partner (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), and experienced daily the struggle of hiding his love from a world that wouldn’t even accept his lover, let alone his love of her and their life together. It is a pity that his name isn’t quite as well known as Lincoln’s (president to congressman, after all) for he paved a dangerous path quite fearlessly, based on the notion that he could lead people with great care for humanity without giving “a damn” about people themselves. Ah, the another great disparity!: the space that exists between the noble notion of liberty and the way that people use it in their free will!

All above, though, and the majority of the film, is about politics. On the other side of the story, the personal side, Mary Todd Lincoln’s character, played with great intensity and sensitivity by Sally Field, is fully developed, charming in mannerism, strong, and hopelessly brave, but (and you knew there was a “but” coming) the fact that Lincoln had threatened to put her into a mental institution as she grieved for their dead son was glossed and smoothed too quickly to be properly toiled over, as a viewer. Mary Lincoln screams and falls to her knees in a moment of pure aggrievance: “you better mean it! Lock me away!”, and he simply quiets himself -gravely, as is most terrifying- and tells her that he couldn’t bear to see her in mourning, because he couldn’t allow himself the relief of such emotions. The statement is deep, dark, ugly, domineering, selfish, and cruel, albeit natural for a person with such responsibilities and ambition. And yet, the music lightens, the clouds seem to clear, Mrs. Lincoln looks surprised and empathetic, and this admission seems to forget or forgive his precursive reaction to lock his grieving wife away indefinitely! The personal side of this telling succumbs, perhaps as Lincoln did in life, to the clever ambitions of our protagonist’s political career.

Leaving the cabinet on his final day in office, he says “ah, I must go, but I would rather stay…” and rides off to the theater, to die. Forgive me, but Lincoln did go out with a bang, but the film includes a solemn close. Spielberg and Day Lewis’s take on the last few weeks of his life does justice to his greatest achievement by keeping it political and not speculating too much about his personal life, but more about his inner life- the philosopher, the quiet autodidact, the father of the people, as opposed to the father of three American boys. The political was personal enough, in this telling of Lincoln’s story.

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