Sunday, November 18, 2012

A "Lincoln" Review

"We must consider what will become of colored folk," shouts Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman, stalking the floor of the House of Representatives in a scene from "Lincoln," Stephen Spielberg's amazing new film. For Yeaman, speaking about the upcoming vote on the 13th amendment to abolish slavery, the question is straightforward: the United States cannot afford to end slavery, because it is not ready to see freedmen as equals. White people will not stand for freedmen who can vote, or who can marry their daughters.

George Yeaman
As Yeaman speaks conservatives nearly froth at the mouth, standing from their seats and crying their indignation each time he names another milestone of black equality on the slippery slope lurking beyond the 13th amendment. The vitriol is shocking--a reminder that slavery remained divisive even within the Union as the Civil War raged in southern territory.

Yet the response from republicans to this bald racism, this racial fear-mongering, is equally shocking. Though Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the radical Republican faction in the House and played by Tommy Lee Jones, might believe the slaves should be freed and granted full political and social equality, he sees no traitors among the pro-slavery faction of his cohort. Stevens dishes out some spectacular name-calling, but it's all in good fun, and the message is clear: slavery remains a political issue, a matter to be debated within and decided by the political institutions of the United States. 

The tone is set: tempers flare, unscrupulous characters abound, ends justify the means, and abolition hangs in the balance.

Into this fray steps Abraham Lincoln. A magnificent, funny, charismatic Lincoln, a Lincoln capable of stopping the lives of a hundred indispensable people long enough to tell a poop joke. This is a Lincoln not conflicted about slavery, or about the 13th amendment--slavery is evil, and should be abolished--but conflicted in other ways. Conflicted about Mary Lincoln, whom he interacts with with something approaching tolerance. Conflicted about his son Robert, who wants to join the army.

In this way Lincoln becomes someone we recognize. A man capable of greatness, beset by the difficulties of his time and all times: a congress of ideologues; an unhappy home. Through it all he's human, in the way we expect our heroes to be. He's smart, but, more important, he's wise. He bears the weight of the horror and death of war, but remains resolved to end the conflict in such a way that that horror will not have been in vain. He is the most important person in any room. He loves his children, and his wife less. This is a Lincoln who, in true post-modern fashion, anticipates his loudest, most persistent critics, deconstructing his own legacy of illegal actions. In the next breath he explains this lawlessness away by claiming that the people, who re-elected him, have validated his actions de facto. Such a scene, in which I found myself nodding along with Lincoln's logic, is the bizzaro world twin of the moment in "Frost/Nixon" in which a clammy Frank Langella, as Nixon, bellows, "when the President does it, that means it's not illegal."

I can imagine that, with a lesser actor than Daniel Day-Lewis, or with a lesser screenplay, the entire movie might have fallen apart. A poop joke? While the telegraph office waits on pins and needles for news from the assault on Wilmington harbor? Somehow, it works: the moment seems appropriate because Day-Lewis's face, haggard and haunted, reminds us that he has never, not for an instant, forgotten the sacrifices of his soldiers. Day-Lewis's Lincoln is practically tactile, inviting us to admire the misplaced hairs sticking from his grey beard, or to trace the deep creases in his face as his mouth and eyes creep into a sly smile. Spielberg wants us to see Lincoln as a man, imperfect as anyone else, instead of the idol he's become. The depiction feels right. It's aided by the crisp screenplay, which dispenses enough comic relief to lighten a film that might otherwise have smothered in the smoky seriousness of the wood-paneled rooms where the fate of the 13th amendment was decided. 

The movie has minor characters galore, all of whom seem to contribute memorable moments. The strongest of these is Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens. His limp becomes the physical metaphor for his compromised principles as he publicly denies his more radical views to protect the passage of the 13th amendment. Yet the subtext is clear: he's limping, but still walking. He, and the country, can move forward. One of the final scenes of the movie shows him presenting a copy of the just-passed amendment to his common law wife, the mixed-race Lydia Hamilton Smith. This is what progress looks like.

"Lincoln" works hard not to fall into the trap of equating the end of slavery to equality for freedmen, but the emotional importance of its climax rests partially upon that assumption. As viewers, the passage of the 13th amendment at the end of the film is our payoff. All of Lincoln's work, and all of his belief in the equality of man, has come here to fruition. This, of course, is not quite how things worked out in real life. The 13th amendment was closer to a beginning than an ending, an early chapter in the story of American racial justice which has not seen an end, and may never.

Not to say that, even with the terror and death that followed, the 13th amendment was not a great advance for human dignity. The vote on the amendment is a worthy climax to a story about war and freedom and herculean feats of politicking. Throughout, the film nods to the potential difficulties of reconstruction, and to the necessity of the stuff of the 14th and 15th amendments, which came later to grant citizenship and the franchise to freedmen. Perhaps, if we're lucky, some brave filmmaker will attempt to show on screen how those two controversial amendments passed. But, as Lydia Hamilton Smith says, speaking about the 13th amendment at the end of the film, maybe "Lincoln" is "enough for now." 

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