In Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln pulls from his top hat an Almanac that proves the witness could not have seen what he testified to.
Of course, Steven Spielberg's most recent film, Lincoln, is not totally historically accurate, and exploring its errors and distortions from the historical record to prove this would be a waste of time. We expect and know that every historical account is incomplete. What matters is not this inevitability of historical inaccuracy but the implications of the representation. [open endnotes in new window]
A better question, then, is, what is the significance of the film Lincoln? By "significance" I do not mean the assumed implicit meaning of the film but what lessons viewers believe they are taking from it, what morals they think the film teaches about present-day politics. Moreover, I would argue that, for this film, it is these intertextual lessons about contemporary political life, not the events portrayed in the film, that rightly provoke audience emotional and ethical responses.
Lincoln depicts about four months in early 1865 in the life of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. As the first President elected from the newly formed Republican Party, which had a strong party platform objecting to slavery, Lincoln immediately faced in 1861 the secession of several Southern states which claimed in seceding a right to enter or leave the Union. This set off the U.S. Civil War which eventually took the lives of an estimated 750,000 soldiers and an uncounted number of civilians. Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, and as he faced his next term which was to begin in March 1865, he determined that passage of a constitutional amendment prohibiting the ownership of people as slaves was morally and politically important to do prior to the end of military hostilities. (The Emancipation Proclamation issued two years earlier was a wartime measure and had dubious legal authority after the war's end.) The conflict shown in the film is the legislative struggle in the "lame duck" Congress. Since the film represents the historical record, I am not spoiling the film by telling that the amendment—the thirteenth amendment which changes Southern property (the slaves) into people—passes. The narrative and political thrill is not in what happened but how it happened.
This analysis is part of a series of studies I have been pursuing about one group (or genre) of film that I have been labeling "social issue" films. In considering the reception of Michael Moore's 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and the historical drama Good Night, and Good Luck (dir. George Clooney, 2005), several theses seem to apply for these sorts of films. These include the following:
1. The "selective exposure" thesis posits that people steer clear of news and ideas that they do not hold. If they do come upon them, they understand them with "selective perception" and "selective retention." Given this, I argue that political filmmakers should carefully construct narrative frames to guide friendly viewers and to encourage less sympathetic ones to consider their messages. As I shall discuss shortly, this thesis operates for Lincoln in that director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner attempted in publicity about Lincoln to frame the film in particular ways, although not to perfect effect.
2. "The use of excessive emotional appeals can backfire if audiences are seeking rational arguments to hold particular opinions."
3. "Conspiracy narratives are more productive in terms of audience acceptance if the narratives argue for complicated webs of power structure and allegiances rather than if they proclaim a centralized core cause (the classic paranoid version of conspiracy)."
4. For documentaries, including the image of the filmmaker and other authorial figures may create a more balanced dialogue with the audience. This technique also reduces the false sense of complete objectivity.
5. For a docudrama or historical fiction the purpose of which is primarily the display of a social issue, " the filmmaker cancreate a dialogue with history, … call[ing] upon the audience to take lessons from the past for the present" through analogical thinking. As I note, implying that the real is being accurately presented almost asks for refutation of that claim, particularly when something politically or morally controversial might be at stake. Here, Robert Stam's discussion of adaptations of fictional work is useful to apply to these sorts of films. Stam suggests moving away from a criterion of "faithfulness" or "fidelity" when analyzing adaptations and, instead, shifting to interrogating the authors' readings or interpretations. He even asserts,
From the point of view of progressive cultural theory, a primary reason for studying the past is to make it useful for the present. Moreover, considering how a historical film's representation activates contemporary social discussion is very much an obligation for a critic. So working through how the filmmaker is engaging with the past is an appropriate and productive activity, and spectators also think about the significance of a movie. This is often through analogical thinking:
Studies of the reception of social issue films indicate that spectators and critics are commonly operating in an analogical mode, comparing the historical representation with contemporary political and social situations.
These five theses from prior studies hold up for the reception of Lincoln. As well, responses to Lincoln provide three new hypotheses, also about both cognitive and affective engagements with social issue texts. The first hypothesis derives from what analysts are claiming is revisionist in this portrait of Lincoln; the second involves affective reactions to the film; the third concerns "trigger words" and "trigger contexts."
From monument to real man
As several articles note about representing Lincoln on the screen, within U.S. cinematic history, our sixteenth President is possibly the most often depicted President, and some of the most famous actors have taken up this role. Many of these representations are within the biopic category, a formula well described by George Custen in his important study of the genre. Custen notes that audience familiarity with major historical persons allows the strategy of intertextuality to help make the parts of the life shown fit into the brief narrative of 120 to 150 minutes in length. Films usually open in medias res; the trajectory of the plot illustrates how the character creates his or her life; a heterosexual romance may place a character into the decision of choosing a career or love, or the romance may be the means to resolve another conflict; and a moment of judgment becomes the climax. Custen notes this judgment crisis often literally is a trial.
Indeed, in one of the most important essays in film analysis, the Cahiers du cinéma's 1970 analysis of John Ford's 1940 film, Young Mr. Lincoln, the authors point out how the filmmakers employ intertextuality to create a teleology of inevitability to the narrative of Lincoln's life. Beginning with a poem in which Lincoln's mother supposedly asks what became of her son, the film directs the audience to conjure up all of the well-worn tales of honest Abe that circulate in U.S. culture. The narrative does not start in Lincoln's childhood home but at the point of his first running for political office. Using make-up, lighting, and camera angles, Young Mr. Lincoln physically evokes the iconography of Lincoln and eventually will deploy many of the well known historical accounts of Lincoln's physical movements and mannerisms, including telling stories and off-color jokes.
Spielberg's Lincoln does the same. The film starts in the middle of the Civil War and opens with young soldiers reciting back to Lincoln, who is visiting the troops, parts of the Gettysburg Address. In the United States, that speech is one of the most often taught passages in school and one of the few that I was required to memorize as a youth. Lincoln also employs the physical mimicry and behavior comparisons so much so that actor Daniel Day-Lewis likely won the best actor Oscar simply for embodying what every child is taught to know is "Lincoln."
Both Ford's Lincoln and Spielberg's Lincoln make their own destinies; both narratives employ heterosexual romance as supporting plots to the primary political storyline; both focus the latter part of the story on a trial that tests Lincoln and forecasts his future. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln is the defense lawyer who miraculously saves two young men falsely accused of murder, earning the gratefulness of their mother, one man's wife, and the other's fiancée. In Lincoln, Lincoln eventually steps in when his lieutenants are not quite able to secure the votes needed for passage of the Amendment, earning the gratefulness of the radical Republicans, Lincoln's wife, and the many African American witnesses. To make the magic happen, in Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln pulls from his top hat an Almanac given to him by the men's mother, seeing what others cannot: that the moon was not shining bright enough that evening for the witness to see what witness claimed he saw. In Lincoln, Lincoln cogitates a solution to his political and moral dilemma about the means to the end during a conversation with two young telegraph officers over the principles of Euclid, of whom Lincoln was a great admirer. Here the resolution plays on the Euclidian proposition that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other.
What made the Cahiers' analysis so historically powerful within film studies was its strongly expressed and clear introduction of structural Marxist ideological analysis, which I would argue is one of the primary methods of textual analysis used currently. The Cahiers essay is, if anything, reflexive about its method of analysis. Amongst the ideas asserted is that links between society and texts are complex, mediated, and decentered. Moreover, texts are authored cultural expressions and evince the same sort of duplicitous behavior as all other ideological statements: knowingly or not, texts repress their own politics. These repressions may be detected through skillful appraisals which include reading the text symptomatically. The critic seeks "structuring absences" and "the internal shadows of exclusion." The critic "makes [the texts] say what they have to say within what they leave unsaid, to reveal their constituent lacks."
In the case of Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, the Cahiers argue that the film represses its political agenda to the effect of creating a monstrous Lincoln as (1) not a compromiser but a potentially violent, castrating figure and (2) not a common man but sacred. These textual contradictions are manifested in the final images of the film in which Lincoln leaves the happy family and his male buddy to walk up a hill a little ways on his own. Storm clouds gather, music associated with the Civil War plays, and Lincoln stiffly climbs to the top of the hill. The image dissolves in the rain to the iconic Lincoln monument.