A Few Notes on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln
Having just viewed Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, I am moved to write a few words about it before it fades from my memory, which will happen rather rapidly. I’ll leave whatever historical inaccuracies the film may contain for others to consider – perhaps my friend and colleague, Christopher Sharrett, will chime in on that score – and concentrate on the film itself, which is in its own way, a remarkably revealing document. Not on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, of course, but rather on Spielberg himself, who shrewdly centers the film on Daniel Day-Lewis’s remarkable performance as Lincoln, and lets the rest of the film fall away from this center as it may.
Lincoln has been a pet project of Spielberg’s for a decade, but having secured the services of Day-Lewis for the role of Lincoln, it seems as if he feels he’s done enough work on the project and lets the production designer and the other actors do the rest, pretty much as they feel moved to do so – within a rigid series of Hollywood biopic parameters, of course. Day-Lewis is the only real reason that the film has any value at all.
Without Day-Lewis, Lincoln would be completely empty, unwatchable, and devoid of any resonance whatsoever. Lincoln has no sense of historical authenticity, even if the facts are “correct,” in the strictest sense of the word, and Day-Lewis consults one of Lincoln’s actual pocket watches in the film, on loan from the Kentucky Historical Society. This is hagiographic fantasy, as synthetic as any superhero movie from the Marvel stable might be. It’s a comic strip, a smooth mixture of pop culture and instant nostalgia, presented by someone who has spent his life creating cinematic confections.
For Lincoln is a child’s pop up book version of history, with all the major characters name-tagged, and portrayed by instantly recognizable actors who usually work in television series or TV movies. As is common knowledge, Norman Rockwell is Spielberg’s favorite artist – though Rockwell himself never made such a claim, preferring to refer to himself as a conscientious craftsman, who consistently gave the public what it wanted – and Spielberg fits the same mold.
Spielberg has a large collection of Rockwell originals, and his films are a perfect reflection of Rockwell’s hopelessly idealized, mythologized and sanitized vision of life. It isn’t what Spielberg wants, in the end. Just as Rockwell, he’s always a commercial artist for hire, and nothing more. It’s what the public wants, the mass public, the people who buy the tickets. They’re behind every decision in Lincoln, which never loses sight of its core ambition. But in the midst of this, there’s one shining point of brilliance, and that’s Day-Lewis’s Lincoln.
So here’s a prediction, which as far as I’m concerned is a lock: Day-Lewis will win the Academy Award for Best Actor at the upcoming Oscars, inasmuch as the Oscars completely marginalize films from any nation other than the United States, except for a nod to Best Foreign Film – one of many, many possible candidates wins this dubious honor each year. Certainly, the most exciting filmmaking isn’t taking place in the United States anymore, nor has it been for some time; it’s in films like This Is Not A Film by Jafar Panahi, but don’t hold your breath on that film getting a nomination. Above all, Academy Award winning films have to be crowd pleasers, and with every knee-jerk reaction shot, music cue, and spoon fed step of the narrative, Lincoln fits this bill down to the last, predictable backlit shot of Lincoln holding forth to his colleagues, hazily enshrined in misty nets of ersatz sunlight.
This is not to take away anything from Day-Lewis’s performance; it’s just simply to note that on the Hollywood horizon, he really has no competition in terms of acting chops this go-round, and so I’m picking him now as the winner. He’s that good. The film itself may get the nod as Best Picture, which it doesn’t deserve – I’ll go for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty sight unseen for that honor (though it won’t win either, but she’s the best commercial director working today, hands down, with runners up Bennett Miller and J.C. Chandor standing in the wings) – and yet solely on the strength of Day-Lewis’s work in the film, coupled with a typically relentless marketing campaign, it has a good shot at it.
For although the film itself is a character actor studded waxworks, make no mistake about it; Day-Lewis is simply stunning in the title role, although once again, we really have no historical markers with which to gauge his performance. We have photographs of Lincoln, and second hand account from his contemporaries on his speech patterns and mannerisms, but no actual recording of his voice, or moving images that might capture his manner of walking, standing or ambling across a crowded room.
But somehow, this doesn’t matter; when Day-Lewis is on screen, everyone else seems to vanish, and if they don’t, Spielberg’s relentlessly slow tracking shots soon eliminate them from the frame, as the camera spirals in with unremitting intensity on the film’s protagonist. It’s one of those performances where the screen seems to disappear; whether or not Day-Lewis’s rendition of Lincoln is “accurate,” he nevertheless disappears entirely within his character, leaving no traces of effort, waste motion, or theatrical flourishes on the screen.
As with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Bennett Miller’s far superior biopic Capote, the credit for this resides almost entirely with Day-Lewis himself, though, as a habitually gentle and modest man, Day-Lewis remains self-effacing on his work in the film. But, as Spielberg himself told Charles McGrath in The New York Times, “I never once looked the gift horse in the mouth. I never asked Daniel about his process [of bringing the role to life]. I didn’t want to know.” To which Day-Lewis added,
“There’s a tendency now to deconstruct and analyze everything, and I think that’s a self-defeating part of the enterprise […]. But I need to believe that there is a cohesive mystery that ties all these things together, and I try not to separate them. Without sounding unhinged, I know I’m not Abraham Lincoln. I’m aware of that. But the truth is the entire game is about creating an illusion, and for whatever reason, and mad as it may sound, some part of me can allow myself to believe for a period of time without questioning, and that’s the trick. Maybe it’s a terrible revelation about myself that one does feel able to do that.”
And, as with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work in Capote, once Day-Lewis got into the role, he stayed in the role straight through the end of the film, essentially refusing to break character. Spielberg left him alone, other than to talk about blocking and other technical matters, but it’s remarkable to see Spielberg so entranced by his leading man that he places the camera at the service of the actor, rather than the other way around. As a competent action director at his best, Spielberg is more interested in having the actors hit their marks, say their lines, and go home; here, one gets the feeling that Day-Lewis, in his quiet way, is the real director of the piece. When he isn’t on camera, the illusion that Day-Lewis creates vanishes almost immediately; it’s as if there were two directors for the film.
This frank “hands off” acknowledgement is central to an understanding of the film, for Spielberg visually acknowledges this air of mystery and impenetrability by continually framing Day-Lewis as a calm, almost unknowable presence in a series of cramped, smoke-filled rooms, where Lincoln and his colleagues hammer out a plan to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution through the House of Representatives, thus abolishing slavery. There are no self-conscious camera movements here; indeed, there is almost no visual signature to the film at all.
Cinematically, Lincoln most closely resembles a handsomely mounted TV movie, with an extremely ample budget, and when Day-Lewis is on screen, Spielberg is content to observe the marvel of his performance from a distinct psychological distance, no matter how close he may get to the actor’s face on screen. It doesn’t matter how he may try, there’s no way Spielberg can get into Day-Lewis’s interpretation of the role; as with the audience, he remains a perpetual spectator throughout the film. Spielberg is content to simply record Day-Lewis at work, and he’s on screen for almost the entire film, and almost never grows tiresome, even as he launches into yet another of his seemingly endless supply of homespun yarns, often to the consternation of his associates.
Spielberg knows that he has something extraordinary in Day-Lewis, and you have to admire his taste, at least as far as casting goes; he pursued Day-Lewis for at least eight years and several scripts to get him for the title role. Liam Neeson was in the running for a while, and Day-Lewis didn’t like the first script Spielberg offered to him. But as matters progressed, a new, tighter – but still too long – script was created by Tony Kushner from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Day-Lewis signed on, albeit reluctantly.
In many ways, the actor had to be dragged into the project, and it took a lot of persuading to get him on board. As Day-Lewis later told Charles McGrath,
“I thought it was a great idea — for someone else [. . .]. I thought [that tackling the role was] a very, very bad idea. But by that time it was too late. I had already been drawn into Lincoln’s orbit. He has a very powerful orbit, which is interesting because we tend to hold him at such a distance. He’s been mythologized almost to the point of dehumanization. But when you begin to approach him, he almost instantly becomes welcoming and accessible, the way he was in life.”
After that, it was just a matter of signing up the secondary parts, and getting on with the shooting. In subsidiary roles, Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens directs himself, as does Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, but the rest of the cast are left to their own devices, with varying degrees of success. Sally Field is disastrously miscast as Mary Todd Lincoln, and runs through her scenes as if they were outtakes from her recently deceased television series Brothers and Sisters, while the always-reliable James Spader easily slips into the role of the cynical political fixer W.N. Bilbo. Similarly, David Strathairn strolls through his role as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, without breaking a sweat or being in the slightest bit convincing, while Janusz Kaminski’s moody camerawork lends a suitably nostalgic patina to the entire ensemble’s efforts, and John Williams’ ruthlessly sentimental score wells up at all the “appropriate” moments, as one would rightly expect.
With the action concentrated on the events of 1865 that led up to the passage of the 13th Amendment, the film’s scope is suitably narrow, but even with this compression of time, the end result drags. While Day-Lewis stops Spielberg literally in his tracks, and he’s happy to simply observe genius at work, when the other actors take the center stage, his camerawork and editing become predictably Capraesque, most notably during the final moments before the bill is passed, with the usual “suspenseful” intercutting, and resultant celebration framed in a sequence of one-after-the-other reaction shots and cutaways, as if fifty years of filmmaking had never even happened. Indeed, the overall impression one comes away with is that the film might as well have been made in 1933, something like Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII – another showcase draped primarily around its central character.
So, in the end, Lincoln isn’t hateful, if only because it preserves Day-Lewis’s performance (one wonders what it would be like to see him on the stage in the role), and it’s probably one of Spielberg’s best films of late, but the heavy lifting here isn’t done by Kushner’s screenplay, which is merely serviceable, or Spielberg’s direction, which is really just setting up rather routine, indeed basic, camera set-ups and watching what happens, but by the actors; Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, and in a small part, Jackie Earle Haley, properly slimy as Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, who tries to swing a “peace agreement” with Lincoln which would recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate nation, something that Lincoln resolutely refuses to do.
But at the same time, Lincoln is really a Hallmark Hall of Fame sort of project, with the false patina of “quality” stamped on every frame. It’s the greeting card history of the Civil War; pretty, momentarily diverting, full of false solemnity and emotion – a sort of Gone With The Wind for 21st century audiences. Just as that film played on tropes of the “vanishing South” for melodramatic effect, so Lincoln invites us to cheer the progressive Republicans who so fiercely champion the abolition of slavery, and hiss the evil Democrats who oppose their efforts. The whole thing is cardboard, with one genuine figure at the center of the entire affair, but for most viewers, happily accustomed to prepackaged sentiment, Lincoln offers 149 minutes of smoothly designed “edutainment.” Lincoln, like all Spielberg movies, does all the thinking for you. That’s the way most people want it, and Spielberg is happy to oblige.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
McGrath, Charles (2012) “Abe Lincoln as You’ve Never Heard Him”, The New York Times, October 31.
Perez, Rodrigo (2012), “Spielberg Chased Daniel Day-Lewis For 9 Years, Wanted Him Before Liam Neeson To Play Lincoln & More About The Film”, IndieWire November 7.
Lane, Anthony (2012), “House Divided”, The New Yorker, November 19.