2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
Lincoln: shared myths in a revisionist age
by Frederick Wasser
Spielberg has finally assumed his long-sought for position as the foremost U.S. mainstream history filmmaker. His unprecedented success as the world’s most profitable big budget director gave him the resources to pursue this position despite earlier setbacks such as Empire of the Sun (1987) and Amistad (1997). Even the success of Schindler’s List (1993) did not give him this title but merely prepared the way for a string of increasingly historical themes starting with Saving Private Ryan (1998) and continuing through to Munich (2005). The last picture was written by the playwright, Tony Kushner. Spielberg has renewed that collaboration with Kushner and it has matured into the movie Lincoln (2012).
Of course, both Abraham Lincoln and Steven Spielberg have accumulated “baggage.” Lincoln has been the subject of partisan interpretation from the moment he was nominated for President. In this process he has become the frame for how the interpreter wants to describe U.S. democracy. And now Spielberg wants to interpret. The filmmaker’s baggage is much less profound but in this case it is larger than the typical Hollywood director. Spielberg’s career has been as the director of a string of industry-shaping blockbusters. Therefore audience expectations are high for any theme Spielberg engages. He welcomes the expectations and implicitly collaborates with the audience to make his films visible signs of a “collective” aesthetic. In this age when both television and theatrical movies are content to seek profits with fragments of audiences, Spielberg’ ability to put together a mass audience for a history lesson is a throwback to classical pre-war Hollywood. There remain differences that I shall discuss later.
Pre-war Hollywood made several prominent films about Lincoln (he has been largely left in peace after the1940s until now). Two of the most important are Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (dir. John Cromwell, 1940). Spielberg has always tried to maintain continuity between his work and the studio era. Therefore when he embraces a classic Hollywood genre it becomes a critical opportunity to see how far today’s ideologies have shifted from the New Deal populism of the earlier period. The films of Kushner and Spielberg enhance this critical opportunity since both identify with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Kushner is overtly partisan and while Spielberg’s politics are known, he continues to identify himself as an entertainer seeking the wide audience rather than as polemicist. [open endnotes in new window] Lincoln’s global popularity proves that the filmmaker has effectively revived the consensual historical film genre, as Darryl Zanuck and other studio moguls formulated it. This formula has declined since the road show era of the 1960s.
Zanuck’s production of Young Mr. Lincoln has passed into the pantheon of U.S. films and is the subject of a critical essay written by the Cahiers du cinéma collective in 1970. This essay has also become canonical because of its delineation of the ideologies in the film. I will not suppose that Spielberg is familiar with the essay but I ask you to believe that Kushner read it. The primary evidence is that his script and film place front and center the very repression that Cahiers du cinéma identified in the 1939 classic. This was the visual and textual repression of racism and the multi-cultured inheritance of the Civil War. The repression was less verbal in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (which was released six months later), which quoted several of Lincoln’s speeches concerning racial relations. But visually both studio films kept African Americans off screen. Coincidentally, neither film did very well at the box office. Abe Lincoln in Illinois was a particular disappointment since it was based on successful play.
Racial repression may have been the price of consensus in the early 1940s. But now its portrayal is obligatory. Its presence in 2012’s Lincoln is expressive of contemporary audiences. This is a relative easy negotiation for Spielberg/Kushner. A trickier one is the general status of heroes who build nations. The nation-building myth that once fuelled Lincoln’s place in history is currently severely weakened. The nation-state has been de-legitimatized in many cultures. Certainly the role of government in post-Vietnam United States has been questioned and a mass audience would have been polarized by an overly saccharine approach. Movie making has taken the legitimation crises into account and directors such as Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Mel Gibson do so directly through provocative revisions in their histories. Spielberg is more subtle precisely because of his old Hollywood instincts. He allows Kushner’s script to describe the racist context of the times to the point of tainting Lincoln’s aura. But his camera always portrays a hero visibly forging a multi-cultural democracy. In turn, Spielberg/Kushner have their own “structuring absence” that represses issues of labor and development of the frontier. This facilitates their dialectical tension. Let us review the interplay between visual strategy and revisionist script.
The primary scheme is to sprinkle extras and walk-on parts with non-white actors. This has the immediate effect of illuminating obscure historical truths such as the presence of the Native American, Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker, on Ulysses S. Grant’s staff at the culminating moment of the surrender at Appomattox. The film has Lincoln’s son Todd, looking at photos of slaves bearing scars. These are the well-known photos taken by Alexander Gardner in that period and serve as indexical links to the brutality of slavery.
There are the also historical hypotheticals that allow the film to show the multi-racial society that classical Hollywood typically hid. These hypotheticals include the opening scene involving Lincoln with two Black soldiers and an African American military detail escorting the Southern peace negotiators.
However Spielberg even goes to the problematic extreme of correcting history by placing African Americans in the platform when Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address (although a historical photograph shows only white people on the platform) and casting the more ethnically Black looking S. Epatha Merkerson to play the role of Steven’s light-skin common law wife, Mrs. Lydia Smith, who was a quadroon (legally defined as a person who has three European grandparents and one African grandparent. Such a person often visually passed for “white”).
Of course the visual presence of African Americans is the pre-condition for Kushner’s dramatization of Lincoln’s vacillation about racial equality. Mrs. Keckley (Gloria Ruben) the African-American dressmaker directly asks the President about racial harmony. She asks whether he agrees with white people “who don’t want us (freed slaves) here.” He answers,
“…I assume I’ll get used to you. What you are to the nation…What will become of you when slavery is done? I don’t know.”
Spielberg cuts to her baffled reaction and has her speak about freedom, ignoring Lincoln’s mealy-mouth response about “his people and her people.” Another scene that shows Lincoln less than heroic is when he diplomatically makes no response to the Black soldier’s verbal complaint about unequal treatment in the Union ranks between the two races.
It is precisely in that scene that Spielberg’s camera goes to great length to portray Lincoln the great leader. He uses a long and somewhat surprising reveal to establish Lincoln in this scene. It comes immediately after an opening scene of gory hand to hand combat. The opening frame is of two Black soldiers talking as if to each other with an offstage auditor only slightly implied. Slowly the camera pulls back to behind Lincoln’s shoulder to show him listening. But his face cannot be recognized until…the cut to the reverse. Over the soldiers’ shoulders we see a fully frontal Lincoln seated on a chair on a platform in what seems to be a railroad depot. The final shot of the sequence is a push-in of the camera again from behind Lincoln. This time the camera goes far enough to recognize his face in profile. But Lincoln is still ahead of the camera metaphorically leading the audience forward.
Spielberg stages an even more surprising reveal of Thaddeus Stevens in his own office. Again the scene begins with other people talking and it is not until several shots have passed that the camera reveals the seated congressman. In retrospect the audience can work out that the conversation is directed at Stevens. This reveal positions Stevens as a powerful politician whose presence is felt even when he is not actually in the frame. But it is not the heroic reveal of Lincoln. Stevens is off angle and his figure is obscured by the desk. Stevens’ verbal idealism will serve as the counter-point to Lincoln’s lawyerly pragmatism (which turns out to be more photogenic).
Spielberg’s camera continues to glorify Lincoln even in the scenes depicting the routine of a wartime presidency. The set design and lighting make a strong contrast between exterior and interior. The cinematographer Janusz Kaminski once again allows the interior windows to overexpose. This is a consistent look in Spielberg that goes as far back as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). In other movies he refers to this as “God Lights” (Morris, 8) but in Lincoln the over exposure doesn’t suggest the divine. It signifies a war outside that continues to rage as politicians argue inside.
The interiors of Lincoln feature a fussiness that is in contrast with the frontier simplicity of earlier Lincoln films. It evokes an attention to detail which is a factor that resonates between our own digital age (where every pixel is fussed over) and the Victorian era. There are curtains everywhere and cords and decorations and both the furniture and the people are overdressed. Ironically, only in the telegraph suite (that is the harbinger of the electronic age) is a lack of clutter and simplicity of empty space.
Camera movement is constrained compared to previous Spielberg movies. He favors the use of movement to immerse the audience in the action. I wonder if he consciously decided to forego such tactics in this piece or unconsciously relied on the acting to immerse the audience. Certainly this can be illustrated in the acting style of Daniel Day Lewis. Lewis is not a presentational actor but one who forces the audience to identify with his character by withholding explanatory gestures and thereby leaving gaps that the engaged audience fills in. The actor refuses to make a claim on our empathy even when the script makes such a claim for the character. Witness Lewis’ Lincoln scene with his wife (Sally Fields). The couple are bickering over the memories of their dead son and their fears about their oldest son’s desire to go into the army. But Lewis’ Lincoln only reveals his own fears in measured words that do not ask for audience sympathies. Lewis’ “cool” relationship with the viewer can be understood better if we imagine Liam Neeson in the title role (as it was originally cast until Neeson had to drop out). Neeson would have asked us to like Lincoln and we would position ourselves outside Lincoln in order to judge. Lewis’s enigmatic performance places us on the inside.
Spielberg’s work has moved in a long trajectory of working increasingly with sophisticated writers and actors and adjusting his own camera-oriented style to accommodate their skills. A decade and a half ago he directed Amistad, a legal drama concerning 19th century slavery. Lincoln avoids the didactic pitfalls of the earlier movie because of Kushner’s and Lewis’s greater abilities and the subtle tension between the director’s heroic camera and Kushner’s revisionist script. The somewhat inelegant ending shows Spielberg coming dangerously close to didacticism since he cannot resist adding tableaux of Lincoln’s death scene and his inaugural address. These tableaux are almost as heavy handed as Young Mr. Lincoln’s final shot of the Lincoln memorial. The more perfect ending, balanced between script and camera, was achieved two scenes earlier when Lincoln leaves the White House for the final time.
Spielberg’s maturity as a historical filmmaker is based on a greater thoughtfulness in using the past to meditate on the present. Lincoln is more of intervention into the present than Amistad or Schindler’s List. Superficially it is a back-story that teaches us that Lincoln was a lawyer before he became America’s savior. Spielberg bought the rights to Doris Goodwin’s book on the cusp of the George W. Bush administration, and development leisurely proceeded for a decade in part because of dissatisfactions with the script. Kushner’s decision to focus on the passage of the 13th amendment (not a particularly dramatic section of Goodwin’s book) was obviously the key to Spielberg’s commitment. It was the solution to how Spielberg wanted to intervene into the present and renegotiate the consensual historical film. But commentators were too quick to draw immediate lessons from the film for actual current political struggles.
Instead we should consider that Spielberg got into historical filmmaking without much of a corresponding taste for controversy. Minority Report (2002) is a great historical film despite being science fiction. Yet Spielberg’s public statements after the release backed away from its anti-vigilante theme since the intervening event of September 11th 2001 was now inspiring U.S. desire for pre-emptive action (McBride, 489). Several years later Spielberg decided to treat the Bush-era topic of combating terrorism tangentially when he made Munich. But the film drew ferocious attacks simply because it had one character voice a Palestinian justification. The director’s measured statement in the filmed introduction to the DVD release of Munich, seemed slightly taken aback by this reaction. His subsequent ventures such as Indiana Jones IV (2008) and The War Horse (2011) were timid uses of the past.
Nonetheless, I imagine it is with Lincoln that Spielberg finally feels he has earned a positive comparison not so much with his own idol, John Ford, but with the producer, Darryl Zanuck. He wanted to revive the genre not so much of films set in the past but of films which can establish a common history for a people.
He has solved mythmaking in the decidedly anti-mythic atmosphere of the 21st century. The dialectic between Kushner and Spielberg sets Abraham Lincoln up as the president of an emerging multi-cultural society, a consequence of democracy that the founding fathers did not address and that Lincoln’s generation was only beginning to recognize. Myth, particularly origin myths, always omits as much as it represents. Here it is interesting to return to the contrast with classic Hollywood. Spielberg and Kushner do not portray Lincoln as a frontiersman and therefore elide issues of economic development and labor that were present in the earlier films. Indeed Abe Lincoln in Illinois goes as far as to affirm Lincoln’s endorsement of the right of labor to strike. I am not sure that repression of the economic amounts to the “structuring absence” that Cahiers du Cinéma finds in Ford but it is indicative of our own times and our elisions. Certainly it has been a while since the mainstream film industry has embraced issues of class, labor, and development. In the age of finance capitalism, and the out-sourcing of over-development and environmental degradation, these are overly difficult issues. They cannot sustain myth-making. As such, they are purged from Lincoln.
Lincoln is a problem for those of us who want our popular culture to challenge the over-whelming dominance of market values. Even though Spielberg’s Lincoln does not participate in this struggle we would do well to embrace Spielberg’s mainstream mythmaking because we need to revive the genre of shared history. We must respect that, for now, shared history will be based on identity politics even as issues of labor continue to be ignored. We must accept that Spielberg’s camera in a dialectic with Kushner’s dialog is an achievement for mass media.
2. The right-wing columnist David Brook, in one of his NewsHour appearances, describes the passage of the 13th Amendment as an exercise in bipartisanship that should inspire the current president Obama to greater efforts to reach out to current Republicans. But it is easily countered that the lesson for Obama is Spielberg’s portrayal of Lincoln’s refusal to give in to the Southern peace negotiators.
3. Spielberg’s famous continuing motif in all his stories is the absent and/or flawed father. It is hard to ignore that Darryl Zanuck has become Spielberg’s unmentioned mentor. Of course Darryl was the biological father of Spielberg’s early producer and mentor; the late Richard Zanuck. Spielberg increasingly tackles serious stories that resonate across two cultural moments with the great productions of the elder Zanuck ranging from I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang (dir. LeRoy 1932) to Gentlemen’s Agreement (dir. Kazan 1947).
Cahiers du Cinema Editors. “John Ford’s Young Man Lincoln.” In Narrative, Apparatus and Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. Edited by Philip Rosen, 444-482. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970/1986.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg : A Biography Second Edition. Jackson MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Morris, Nigel. The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light. New York: Wallflower Press, 2007.
Wieseltier, Leon. “Hits.” The New Republic. 233(4) December 19, 2005. 38.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.