JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

As a child, Spielberg was impressed by a visit to the Lincoln Memorial, looking up at "this huge man sitting in this huge chair."

Mary Todd Lincoln grieves over the death of a son, with a notable performance by Sally Field.

The "castrating" Lincoln berating his colleagues, saying he will get the needed votes for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Again, paternalism—here in the bent head, eyeline match, and POV, as Lincoln discusses race with Elizabeth Keckley.

The butler's gaze worshipingly lingers on the nation's Father-figure ...

... as the President leaves the White House, framed against a bright window in iconic dress and pose.

Thaddeus Stevens gives the 13th Amendment to Lydia Smith, his longtime housekeeper and companion, who reads it outloud.

Black spectators express joy in the gallery as the 13th Amendment passes.

President Obama garnered sympathy when he choked up while discussing the Newton CT shooting. In thinking about viewers' crying at a film, we should distinguish between crying about the characters and crying about the broader moral world in which the characters are actors.

 

I have no idea whether Spielberg or Kushner was consciously negotiating with Ford's film. Given the prominence of Ford's film and the Lincoln authors' training in U.S. movie culture, I would hazard to claim that Young Mr. Lincoln was somewhere in the back of their minds. Spielberg has been on a major publicity tour and given many interviews about the origins of the film; he had been working on it for about ten years. One repeated story is how much President Lincoln did matter to him as a youth. Spielberg recalls seeing the Lincoln monument as a child and says it was "'a seminal moment'' for him of "'this huge man sitting in this huge chair'." However, Spielberg then indicates that he wanted to humanize Lincoln: "creating a real man from a monument and giving the character the screen time to breathe and interact, as a father, as a husband, and with all of his own darkness and brilliance'."[21] [open endnotes in new window]

If the huge man in the huge chair is in Spielberg's film, the monumental Lincoln appears in the first scene. As one critic notes, "And while Spielberg sets up tableaux that hint at Lincoln's mythology (our first glimpse of Day-Lewis' Lincoln, as he's meeting troops in the field, makes it look as if he already is posing for the Lincoln Memorial),"[22] Spielberg chooses to end the film with a "living" Lincoln. The final shots of Lincoln are of him on a bed after his assassination, his epitaph spoken that he is now "a man for all ages," and then a lit candle dissolving into a living Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address surrounded by crowds of people.

Speaking to the troops and looking like the Lincoln Memorial. At Lincoln's deathbed, he's declared a "man for all ages."
Dissolve to a living Lincoln ... ... delivering his second Inagural Address.

I assume Spielberg is trying to frame the narrative in terms of what he sees as the legacy of Lincoln, a proponent of, to quote the Second Inaugural Address, a person "with malice toward none, with charity for all … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Still, to give the Cahiers their due, I would certainly not want to take this final image of a living Lincoln (or the film) at face value. Despite Spielberg's framing, some viewers of the film have expressed the affective response of "disappointment" over it, specifically about its representation of African Americans. Historian Kate Masur points out that providing suggestions of black activism before and during the Civil War would have reduced the impression that whites were "giving" emancipation to blacks.[23] As well, the thirteenth amendment was not something Lincoln dreamed up; it began as a petition campaign in early 1864 by abolitionist women headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.[24] Moreover, the film uses the standard Hollywood tactic of creating a deadline, in this case a false one: Lincoln indicated that he would call a special session of the new Congress in March 1865 that had enough votes to pass the legislation if the bill failed in the lame duck session.[25]

Here the "structuring absences" from the historical record do say something about the ideological project of the film,[26] and these absences are present in the film. The Cahiers' approach to Young Mr. Lincoln is to note the excesses and "hysteria" of the film. Spielberg knows better at this point in his filmmaking career: a melodramatic treatment in historical drama will earn him negative comments. Often the film edges toward such a display, particularly in a scene in which Mary Todd Lincoln grieves over the death of one of her sons, but Spielberg channels the melodrama into Sally Field's performance of Mary's grief, allowing Lincoln to appear paternal in comforting her, even through the body arrangements. And the castrating Lincoln appears: during a key moment in attempting to secure the votes for the amendment, Lincoln berates his colleagues, declaring that he will have these votes.

Where the absences appear are in crucial eyeline and point of view shots. One example is a short but intimate exchange between Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, an African American dressmaker and confident to Mrs. Lincoln. Lincoln was a tall man, but the staging accentuates his height over her as they discuss the potential outcome for her freed race, and his downward bend of the head suggests a father addressing a young child.[27] However, the best example occurs at the pivotal moment in the film. The amendment has passed and the war is over; Lincoln is preparing to go to the theater where he will be shot on Good Friday. His butler, an African American—ever the quiet observer of the wise leader—turns and watches as Lincoln heads toward the stairway, framed in a bright window, out of the White House. In Ford's film, the Cahiers note the passive adoration of Lincoln by mothers and young women; in Spielberg's film, the worship comes from the perspective of African Americans, and the worship implies Lincoln as a benevolent Father-figure, a motif excessively present in Spielberg's cinema.

In an extended exchange in the online blogs associated with the journal, The Atlantic, African American commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates and several other people discussed the absence of the representation of black activism in Spielberg's film. Some contributors argued for a judgment of failure for the film in its supposed lessons for progressive politics since Lincoln still portrays blacks as passive and recipients of white good will. However, Coates eventually argues that in a comparative sense, Lincoln is radical, not because of what it did not do—adequately represent black activism and progressive politics—but because of what it does do within U.S. popular culture. Pointing out the wretched history of the representation of the Civil War with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), Coates suggests that it is a major turn in U.S. cinematic culture since Spielberg's Lincoln does show some (although not all) of the significances of blacks in the historical situation. Moreover, the film does not trade in Southern "Lost Cause" nostalgia, but "Lincoln says the Civil War is about slavery."[28] This latter point is a major dynamic for historical debate about U.S. history in the last twenty years. For Coates, the social issue of the representation of U.S. history may not hinge on turning Lincoln into a "real man" but on turning dominant popular historical representations away from the myths of the South and toward the reality of America's original sin of slavery.[29] Lincoln's contradictory ideological stance may repress black activism but still reveal the fundamental place of blacks within U.S. political and social battles.

Political emotions

Although Masur expressed the emotion of "disappointment" in relation to the representation of African Americans in Lincoln, critics are describing the film as rather analytical and, consequently, unlike most Spielberg films, which are well known to irk people because of their ability to manipulate the emotions of the audience. Social issue films may trade in all sorts of emotional appeals. The excitement in Lincoln, for instance, is not whether the amendment will pass (unless the audience member does not know U.S. history) but how the victory is achieved: it is a political thriller.

Still, I personally had another very specific emotional reaction while watching it and which reoccurred even during a second screening: I cried twice.[30] Within the commentary and reviews I have studied, two other people report similar affective responses. Coates, as I noted above, is a progressive African American commentator, and he remarks that he "was crying at the end" although he gives no further details.[31] A. O. Scott, critic for the influential New York Times, writes,

"The most moving [scene] for me is a quiet scene when the 13th Amendment is read aloud. I won't give away by whom."[32]

David Edelstein liked the film but complains that it has a "stinkeroo first dialogue scene" in which black soldiers ask for equal pay and two white soldiers quote back the Gettysburg address: "The exchange sounds both too modern … and too corny."[33] Actually, it was that scene which first affected me, not because of the two white soldiers quoting the Address but because they did not finish it; an African American soldier stepped up and completed the famous lines:

"that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth."[34]

The second emotion-moving scene for me was the actual passage of the bill but not as the radicals, Republicans, and Mary Todd Lincoln celebrate but as the camera pans over the black spectators in the gallery, revealing their reactions. I speculate that what is really affecting me is joy: the right result has occurred for the victims of an unjust system. What was going on emotionally for Coates or for Scott is not clear from their brief comments, but given the content of the film at the moments they point to, I am speculating that their emotions are similar and related to mine.

In a recent essay, I considered psychoanalytical theory about crying.[35] Male viewers of Casino Royale (2006), the recent reboot of the James Bond series, reported crying over the death of the female protagonist, Vesper Lynd, with whom Bond has fallen in love and is about to leave spying for her. I argued that the crying in this instance might be a defense mechanism against a secret wish for her death: her narrative departure allows Bond to become an agent at Her Majesty's service and the Bond series can continue.[36] Here, these male spectators cried over a narrative event normally viewed as sad. Crying over the right outcome is another matter.

In general crying is associated with loss of control or emotional catharsis or even hysterical laughter. What crying is, is a physical expression of intense emotion or affect.[37] Moreover, as scholars of the history of crying point out, crying need not be equated with the feminine.[38] A long history of the "man of sentiment" represents such emotional welling of feelings as proper for males. Tom Lutz quotes a 1755 essay in which the author states that

"moral weeping proceeds from, and is always attended with, such real sentiments of the mind, and feeling of the heart, as do honour to human nature."[39]

Although crying may have been a mid-twentieth-century taboo for men in the United States,[40] that stigma has dissipated in the last decade: witness the general sympathy for President Barack Obama's chocking up numerous times discussing the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in December 2012. And for a much more everyday example, note the two males—Coates and Scott—who volunteer their emotional response to Lincoln.

In the instance of the sort of historical drama film which I am considering here—a social issue film—my question goes to, why do we cry when things go right or people do the right or ethical thing? Or things do not go right or people do not do the right thing? (After all, social issue films portray not only historical victories but also historical defeats.) As Ed Tan and Nico Frijda point out, sentimental literature was written with a moral purpose, and this agenda now often shows up in cinema. However, Tan and Frijda are considering the more standard melodramatic plots of "justice in jeopardy" and "moral rectitude under seduction"[41] in which the emotional response relates specifically to the situations the characters face. Tan and Frijda point out that audience "crying is a response to helplessness, rather than specifically to grief," as spectators await the resolution. Alternatively,

“First, there is joy as a response to a favorable outcome . … Second, there is relief where hopes are fulfilled and fears are terminated. And third, there are acute feelings toward the protagonist, like pity and admiration, and corresponding feelings toward the antagonist, such as anger and schadenfreude.”[42]

In the case of the instances of crying that I have found for Lincoln, none of them involves the situational outcomes for characters—what is going on in the diegesis of the film. Each example is connected with ethical or political preferences for a broader panorama and resolution of moral and social life, something that is surely very individualized in how a spectator might be reading the narrative and drawing intertextual analogies. It is the "big" picture that is at stake not the trajectory of the lives of individuals: hence "social issue" and "political emotion."[43]

Now, nineteenth- and twentieth-century melodrama articulated broad themes of social criticism. I do not want to imply that the private and the public are separate phenomena. Rather, what I want to propose is that one can cry about the diegetic characters, but one can also cry (and have other emotional responses) about the broader non-diegetical world in which the filmic characters represent historical actors and in which spectators are real participants. Moreover, the emotional responses as a consequence of analogical thinking may matter more in evaluating a film's ideology when the focus shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic targets, here both in the case of "disappointment" about the representation of African American actions in changing history as well as joyful crying that ethical actions toward improving human rights have occurred. This emphasis on emotions in relation to analogical thinking, the significance of the film, may be more obvious as I turn to my third point.

Go to page 3


To topPrint versionJC 55 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.