2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
Equality before the law in Spielberg’s Lincoln
by Gary Bettinson and Richard Rushton
Film history has recreated Abraham Lincoln in many guises. He has been a patriot flirting with despotism (Abe Lincoln in Illinois [John Cromwell, 1940]) and a vengeful scourge of vampire hordes (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter [Timur Bekmambetov, 2012]). He has accurately been depicted as a divisive figure within contemporary society, both revered (Abraham Lincoln [D. W. Griffith, 1930]) and despised (Gangs of New York [Martin Scorsese, 2002], in which Bill the Butcher pours scorn on Lincoln’s likeness). Critical discourse has tended to examine – and treat as a problematic – the mythologizing of Lincoln in movies, exemplified most famously by the 1970 critique of Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) in Cahiers du cinéma, signed by the editors. [open notes in new window] But where does Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) figure in such debates? To what extent is Spielberg’s Lincoln mythical, and to what ideological and political effect? How does Lincoln depart from Ford’s biopic and its contradictory ideological project (illuminated by the Cahiers editors)? And by what narrational devices does Spielberg foster suspense toward widely-known narrative outcomes, such as the Thirteenth Amendment’s successful passage through Congress?
A crucial stage in the amendment’s passage occurs in the House of Representatives, when Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens disavows racial equality. At Lincoln’s behest, Stevens hedges. His evasion hinges on a distinction (based on the 1793 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) between “equality in all things” and “equality before the law.” Professing to subscribe only to legal equality, Stevens seeks to assuage fears that the antislavery amendment heralds black suffrage. The viewer, and certain caterwauling congressmen, knows that Stevens is disingenuous. As a Radical abolitionist, Stevens holds that men of all races are equal – in the eyes of nature if not the law.  This is inferably the filmmakers’ stance too, given the liberal affinities of Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. And yet Lincoln stands to testify that all men are not created equal. The inequality premise is articulated by Thaddeus Stevens, who sardonically adduces one particular House Democrat as “proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their Maker with dim wits impermeable to reason” (Kushner 2013: 103-4, emphasis in original). In other words, some men, irrespective of color or creed, are by nature inferior to others. If Stevens feigns belief in this premise, Lincoln itself bears it out. Despite Spielberg’s aim to depict Lincoln the “man, not [the] monument” (Rubel & Bouzereau 2012: 148), this film’s Abraham Lincoln is precisely not the equal of all others, but rather a mythically superior Republican, surpassing other men in moral rectitude and political courage.  Here is the paradox of Lincoln: for Lincoln to succeed, it must argue that all men are equal…except for Abraham Lincoln.
The film establishes Lincoln’s superiority by means of a particular rhetorical strategy: Lincoln’s aides and adversaries bemoan his personal defects, but the film recasts these flaws as virtues. Indeed, Spielberg reveals Lincoln’s “faults” to harbor rhetorical advantage, bearing testimony to the President’s political shrewdness. In Lincoln’s case, personal flaws belie political attributes. Thus the “inveterate dawdler,” whose penchant for protracted yarns exasperates even his allies, invests his tales with proselytizing purpose. The “capitulating compromiser” temporizes not out of an imputed custom to “vacillate,”  but in order to progress, however marginally, toward the attainment of political goals. (In a pivotal scene, Lincoln urges Thaddeus Stevens to recognize the necessity of political accommodation.) If at times Lincoln skirts the law, this does not signify moral weakness so much as a clear-sighted disenthrallment from constitutional laws impeding the moral good. Lincoln may “drag his feet about everything,” as one senator gripes, but the film makes it clear that Lincoln makes monumental decisions during his periods of deliberation. (Delaying – Lincoln’s “favorite tactic,” according to his astute eldest son – provides another corollary to Lincoln’s deliberateness.) In all, this President is underestimated by inferior men blind to the design in his defects.
Lincoln employs another strategy by which to assert the protagonist’s superiority. To Lincoln’s political convictions, the film delineates tenable counterarguments, articulated not only by antislavery Democrats but also by factionalized Republicans, Lincoln’s cabinet members, and Lincoln’s wife Mary. So much dissent functions of course to amplify Lincoln’s solitude. The magnitude of his task – to abolish slavery through constitutional amendment – becomes intensified by the wall of skeptics, naysayers, and enemies that oppose him. Lincoln is admirably polyphonic insofar as it voices diverse political viewpoints. Nevertheless, the film’s rhetorical maneuver is to have characters assail the President with compelling counterarguments only to validate Lincoln’s political convictions and actions. Here again Lincoln hardly emerges as an equal among equals, for he alone possesses the attributes to shape and accomplish his (apparently impossible) war aims. Invalidating oppositional arguments, Spielberg’s film vindicates Lincoln among whose contemporaries the protagonist is unequalled. The film’s own ideological project is similarly constituted. By invoking political alternatives (e.g. proslavery polemic), Lincoln can lay claim to fairness and coverage. By disqualifying those alternatives as inferior, the political system Lincoln advocates emerges all the more sharply. Under the rhetoric of egalitarianism, Lincoln reaffirms not only Abraham Lincoln as mythically superior to other men, but also U.S. democracy as a superior form of government unparalleled by rival systems.
All this being said, Spielberg’s “man” is rather different from the Fordian “myth” endorsed by Young Mr. Lincoln, certainly if we are to believe the Cahiers editors. The mythical line of Ford’s film is controlled by the Woman-Nature-Law equation that the Cahiers editors bring out. Lincoln’s destiny there is determined by cosmological or natural forces far stronger than he, so that Lincoln himself acts as a mere conduit for those forces.  Perhaps nowhere is this more born out than in the magical solutions to problems that Lincoln happens upon throughout the film.  Spielberg’s Lincoln can, by contrast, accomplish little by way of magic. Rather, Lincoln’s rather staid action, its talkiness, its focus on argumentative rhetoric, back-room deals and canny strategizing, places Spielberg’s Lincoln well away from Ford’s.
Furthermore, if Ford’s Lincoln forces an equation between Nature and Law, then Spielberg makes a clear distinction between them, as we have already noted. And yet, perhaps this is as much as for Spielberg’s film to declare that there is no such thing as nature, aside from those things that humans articulate, argue or fight for as “natural.” Thus is Euclid’s first common notion affirmed as invented, mathematical principle rather than as natural law, as much as inequality in nature is pointed to by Stevens as a necessity of political convenience. Simply put: arguments and conflict are central processes of democratic politics. We cannot rely on a destined magical equation between nature and law to provide a true political path (and there is no naturally true political path as such). In these ways, Spielberg’s Lincoln emerges as a much more political figure when compared with Ford’s mythical Lincoln.
The political strategies and machinations in Lincoln are conveyed formally by way of suspense. How does Lincoln conjure and sustain this suspense? Spielberg and Kushner find one solution by ascribing Lincoln mutually incompatible goals: (i) to accomplish cessation of the civil war, and (ii) to abolish the institution of slavery. “It’s either the amendment or this Confederate peace,” Seward tells Lincoln, “you cannot have both.” Hovering over these twin goals is the preservation of the Union, for contra the Secessionist Confederates, Lincoln hankers for a United States of America.  By forging apparently antithetical goals, Lincoln potentially generates a sustained clash of hypotheses about the narrative future: which of these goals will Lincoln achieve? Yet the problem remains that Lincoln’s legend, the fate of human bondage, and the outcome of the civil war are known quantities, hence poor candidates for suspense. This is the problem of what the Cahiers editors, in their symptomatic reading of Young Mr. Lincoln, term “feigned indecisiveness” (1970: 15). Like Young Mr. Lincoln, Spielberg’s film must deny that it knows the solutions to the problems it depicts. The inevitability of the plot’s outcome risks dissipating suspense.
Alert to these pitfalls, the filmmakers throw weight onto how Lincoln’s war aims will reach fruition. Suspense hypotheses converge upon Republican strategy: how will Lincoln procure the requisite votes needed for passage; how will congressional Democrats be won to the antislavery cause; what political maneuvers will bring a conclusion to the war? So much emphasis on the Republicans’ machinations lends Lincoln the structure of a procedural. More specifically, Lincoln belongs to a tradition of political films –including Advise and Consent (1962), All the President’s Men (1976), The Ides of March (2011), Contagion (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and others – which build suspense out of an intensified focus on political rituals, schemes, and stratagems. Accordingly, Lincoln dwells on the minutiae of vote-engineering: the cajoling, strong-arming, feints, vows, and quids-pro-quo with which Lincoln’s lobbyists pursue votes. Suspense in the political-procedural springs from the protagonists’ moves and counter-moves, and the play of hypotheses thus elicited. Employing narrational omniscience, Spielberg and Kushner furnish access to the stratagems of both political parties, such that we can observe how one byzantine scheme trumps the other. This is most evident when Yeaman, a lame-duck Democrat, opposes the amendment before the House. From the gallery, Lincoln’s operatives plot to engineer Yeaman’s volte-face. In the same scene, the narration reveals the Democrats’ scheme to “taunt” Thaddeus Stevens on the floor and expose his apparent intention to “niggerate America.” By juxtaposing the opponents’ respective ploys, the narration fosters suspense (which party’s scheme will prosper?) and conveys all the more sharply the Republicans’ tactical outflanking of the Democrats.
Though omniscient, Lincoln’s narration is strategically gapped. For instance, we observe Lincoln personally coaxing Yeaman. But thereafter the narration – denying us access to Yeaman’s frame of mind – equivocates as to whether or not he will switch his vote to aye. Such informational gaps yield acute suspense. The same device attends Thaddeus Stevens’ character arc. Omniscient narration grants us access to Lincoln as he exhorts Stevens to publicly temper Stevens’ abolitionism. Subsequently, dilatory devices intervene to prolong suspense (as when Lincoln ruminates on Euclid), denying us access to Stevens and allowing suspense hypotheses to coalesce (e.g. will Stevens disclaim racial equality before the House?). Finally this hypothesis is disambiguated when Stevens takes the floor. In Lincoln, gapping the narration produces both suspense (how will Yeaman vote? will Stevens moderate his radicalism?) and surprise (as with the late-arriving disclosure of Stevens’ interracial romance).  Thus Lincoln is able to conjure surprise despite the problem of historical familiarity noted above, by means of an omniscient narration with temporary gaps.
More generally, Spielberg’s procedural marshals an array of suspense-heightening devices. Along with surprise reversals and disclosures, Lincoln sets forth last-minute complications and delays (as when the Democrats, alerted to rumors that Confederate Peace Commissioners are imminent in Washington, seek to postpone or abort the scheduled vote). The film intensifies time pressure; strategically suppresses expositional material; and generates multiple hypotheses.  These suspense strategies amount to what Meir Sternberg calls a “retardatory structure” (Sternberg 1978), ambiguating, prolonging, and equivocating on the action. Of course, Spielberg’s cinematic oeuvre testifies to his mastery of retardatory suspense. But his mastery of the procedural should not surprise us either, given that he cut his teeth on the pilot episode of television’s Columbo (1971). In the Columbo pilot’s dramaturgy (which would harden into a series formula), suspense is predicated on how the protagonist will master the central plot imbroglio, just as suspense in Lincoln stems from the methods and procedures leading the characters to a pre-known conclusion. (Peter Falk’s unkempt detective also shares with Lincoln a wily fondness for tangents and diversions.) Like Lincoln, the episode “creates suspense via omniscient narration,” as Warren Buckland points out (Buckland 2006: 65). As a crime procedural, moreover, “the pleasure in watching [Spielberg’s Columbo pilot] comes from observing the process of detection” (emphasis added; Buckland 2006: 65).
In Lincoln, the procedural aspect reaches down to the film’s very texture. Lincoln’s deliberate rhythms – wrought by tableau staging, long takes, and Spielberg’s sparing use of close-up “singles” – seems at odds with the idiom of “intensified continuity” typically identified with the director’s visual style.  Indeed, the film’s cutting rate is quite conservative by contemporary standards: Lincoln has an average shot length (ASL) of 7 seconds, while Young Mr. Lincoln averages a relatively brisk 5.4 seconds per shot.  If Lincoln’s visual rhythm seems keyed to evoke the President’s own dilatory pace, it is also motivated by the methodical rhythms of the procedural. Spielberg’s visual reticence contributes to the film’s slow-burn suspense. Moreover, Lincoln’s style and story – harnessed to the procedural genre – mesh to engender the “organic unity” that Buckland argues is central to Spielberg’s cinema. 
If these procedural aspects of the story are foregrounded by Lincoln’s plotting, then they also suggest another departure from Ford’s version. In Spielberg’s film, politics triumphs over morality. The destiny and truth of moral vision – so central to Ford’s Lincoln – is undermined by the political artfulness of Spielberg’s version. In Young Mr. Lincoln, for the Cahiers editors, the covering over of politics in favor of the moral destiny of Republican Truth (Woman-Nature-Law again) was evidence of one of the film’s key structuring absences: politics itself disappears under the weight of Lincoln’s magical moral destiny. In contrast, Spielberg’s Lincoln effectively places politics above morality. On the one hand, it highlights the issue of slavery every bit as much as Ford’s film avoids and buries it. On the other hand, again as a matter of emphasizing “procedures,” Spielberg’s film does its best to persuade us that matters of politics are never “done deals.” Rather, they are deals that involve toil, sweat, bickering, compromise, and, occasionally, a fair dose of pig-headedness. From the perspective of 2012, no one will declare slavery a good thing, but to effectively demonstrate that for many years the abolition of slavery was considered by many to be wrong or unnecessary, and that to fight for such reforms in a democracy is never an obvious or easy thing to do, is an undertaking that Spielberg’s film tries to rise to. To declare that slavery is out and out wrong and that its abolition is therefore right is, for this film, a matter of politics and not a matter of morality. For this Lincoln, then, again by way of contrast with Ford’s hero, right and wrong is not all there is to it. Rather, as Day-Lewis’s Lincoln tells us, what good is a compass, picking up on Stevens’ declaration that white Americans have lost their “moral compass” – if you achieve nothing more than “to sink into a swamp”? And what good is Stevens’ conviction of his own moral rightness, that “all men are equal in all things,” if such moral rightness ends in the amendment’s defeat? For Lincoln, morality is made to take a back seat and politics wins the day.
If there is a “structuring absence” in Lincoln, then, it might be that its appeals to equality are undermined by Lincoln’s exceptionalism (that Lincoln is “more equal than others,” to paraphrase Orwell). The rub between Lincoln’s rhetoric of equality and his own superiority allows Spielberg’s hero to here conform to that model which has guided Spielberg’s plots for much of his career: that of the individual’s lone crusade in a divided world, a feeling of being alone in a world where it is impossible to gain universal consent for one’s dreams and actions (and here we can see Roy Neary of Close Encounters , or Elliott of E.T. , the Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List , Frank Abagnale from Catch Me If You Can  and so on ). If, in other words, democracy promises government for the people by the people, then for Spielberg that universal promise still needs individual savants at its core to ensure true political change occurs.
And yet, Spielberg’s Lincoln accepts that this exceptionalism is only temporary; that it is granted by the people themselves, and that it can be taken away from Lincoln by way of that most enshrined of democratic institutions: the popular vote. When one member of his cabinet insinuates that Lincoln is beginning to act in the manner of a dictator, Lincoln defends his policies, especially in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation, as ones that have been duly tested by “the people.” That, too, is a matter of politics. Stevens, by contrast, refuses the test of popularity. His tendency is to “shit on the people,” as he proclaims at one point, “I don’t give a goddamn about the people.” If there is a dictator here, then it is evoked by Stevens’ views, a figure of the “radical left” who might well have appealed to the Cahiers editors who were so drawn to Young Mr. Lincoln. Is this Spielberg’s boldest move in Lincoln: to declare to us today that the greatest threat to democratic freedom comes in the form of a radical left whose ways have remained untempered for too long and not, as one might be so keen to assume, from a far right Bush-Cheney legacy that has so determined the recent history of the United States?
“If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp...what’s the use of knowing true north?”
1. We provide a critical exegesis of the Cahiers article in Rushton and Bettinson (2010) What is Film Theory: An Introduction to Contemporary Debates, Chapter 1. [return to text]
2. This position echoes Abe’s campaign speech, largely historically accurate, in John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), in which Lincoln makes reference to a hypothetical black woman: “In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others” (quoted in Foner 2010: 97).
3. Spielberg refrains from depicting Lincoln’s physical superiority, which in D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois complements his intellectual superiority.
4. In Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Lincoln’s alleged indecisiveness is perceived by even his fellow Republicans as a weakness to be manipulated and exploited.
5. And these forces are, ultimately for the Cahiers editors, not natural ones at all. Rather, they are forces of Capitalist ideology, clothed in Republican Party rhetoric, and naturalized by Young Mr. Lincoln’s narrative strategies. At the end of the film, Lincoln himself becomes something akin to a ghostly conveyor of this capitalist force; he is, for the Cahiers editors, “an intolerable figure.”
6. See Rushton and Bettinson 2010: 24.
7. If Spielberg’s Lincoln is castigated by his detractors as a “dictator,” Griffith’s Lincoln invites the same charge around his pro-Union ardor. In Griffith’s cradle-to-the-grave talkie, Lincoln’s assertion that “the union will be preserved” congeals into a mantra, recited with the glassy-eyed fervor of a zealot.
8. Though its surprise disclosure is effective, this latter scene is problematic. An African
American reads aloud the official bill, but Spielberg’s camera gradually excludes her. As black, female, and peripheral to the plot, the woman emerges as a socially marginalized and dramatically marginal figure. Such scenes fuel the charge that Lincoln presents black emancipation as a white victory.
9. Pledged to historical authenticity, Spielberg and Kushner take care to anchor these devices in historical fact; for instance, the eleventh hour call for the vote’s deferment derives from true events (see Kearns Goodwin 2013: 688).
10. For intensified continuity, see David Bordwell 2006.
11. Pioneered by Barry Salt, the concept of average shot length has been developed most extensively by David Bordwell. By Bordwell’s estimation, classical Hollywood movies from the period 1930-1960 have an ASL of 8-11 seconds. By the turn of the century, the ASL of a typical Hollywood feature was between 3 and 6 seconds, with some films averaging at around 2 or 3 seconds per shot (Bordwell 2006: 121-123).
12. Buckland 2006. For further discussion, see Bettinson 2009.
13. See Rushton 2012: 124.
Bettinson, Gary (2009) “Reappraising Always.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 7:1, 33-49.
Bordwell, David (2006) The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
Buckland, Warren (2006) Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster. New York & London: Continuum.
Editors of Cahiers du cinéma (1976) “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln,” in B. Nichols, Movies and Methods Volume I, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 493-529.
Foner, Eric (2010) The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kearns Goodwin, D. (2012) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. London: Penguin.
Kushner, Tony (2012) Lincoln: The Screenplay. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Rubel, David and Laurent Bouzereau (2012) Lincoln: A Cinematic and Historical Companion. New York: Disney Editions.
Rushton, Richard (2012) Cinema After Deleuze. London & New York: Continuum.
Rushton, Richard and Gary Bettinson (2010) What is Film Theory? An Introduction to Contemporary Debates. Berkshire & New York: Open University Press.
Sternberg, Meir (1978) Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
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