Allen Guelzo

11.27.12

A Civil War Professor Reviews 'Lincoln'

Allen Guelzo is the director of the Civil War studies department at Gettysburg College. He is the author of a magnificent new history of the Civil War and Reconstruction (why these periods are always separated into different volumes baffles me) as well as important studies of Abraham Lincoln's religious views and the emancipation proclamation.

(My 2000 review of Redeemer President can be read here.)

Prof. Guelzo went last night to see Spielberg's Lincoln. Below follows his reaction to the movie:

I am walking out of the multiplex theater in my old home town of Springfield, and already the sold-out audience for the next showing of Steven Spielberg’s new Lincoln is queuing up. The sound of something very rare in my movie-going experience is still reverberating in my ears – the sound of an audience applauding. And, from the opening crack of thunder that introduces us to Daniel Day-Lewis’s stoop-shouldered Lincoln, there is much worth applauding, even to an empty screen.

Let me play Lincoln biographer first, since I am not, after all, a movie critic. The pains that have been taken in the name of historical authenticity in this movie are worth hailing just on their own terms. Lincoln’s White House office (now the Lincoln Bedroom) meticulously replicates the marble fire-place, Lincoln’s stand-up pigeonhole desk, the scattering on the cabinet table of the Congressional Globe and a printed speech by Lincoln’s postmaster-general Montgomery Blair, the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the wall and the half-tone lithograph of British parliamentarian John Bright on the mantel. The theatre box in which Abraham and Mary Lincoln are listening to Gounod’s Faust has the same pattern of wallpaper as the fatal box at Ford’s Theatre, and Tad Lincoln learns of his father’s shooting while attending a performance of Aladdin. All the familiar figures appear: the staffers Nicolay and Hay, the 13th Amendment’s abolitionist floor-manager James Ashley, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles (“Neptune”), Secretary of War Edwin Stanton – even the clerk of the House of Representatives, Edward McPherson, is correctly situated. Ulysses Grant really did have reddish-brown whiskers, and his military secretary really was a full-blooded Seneca sachem, Ely S. Parker. Even the glass-cased amputated leg of the scoundrel-general, Dan Sickles, makes a quick appearance.

It is on Lincoln himself that the most demanding historical exactness is fitted. And Day-Lewis wears it uncommonly well. His reedy-pitched voice reflects the numerous descriptions of Lincoln’s voice which described it as a tenor, with almost squeaky accents. He walks flat-footedly, as Lincoln did, wraps himself in a shawl, features only a tuft of beard at his chin (the luxuriant chin-whiskers of his early presidency had been shaved-down by the time of the movie’s events, in 1865), and quotes Shakespeare between off-color stories. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln’s canniness and his awkwardness, his external simplicity and his internal complexity, a man easy to underestimate but dangerous in the outcome when you do. Even odd snatches of Lincoln’s words surface, and not just in the set-piece moments like the Second Inaugural – “flub-dubs” to describe Mary Lincoln’s over-budget redecorating projects, the dream of a recurring dream of the ship navigating toward an unknown shore, the theorems of Euclid, the desire to see Jerusalem.

But this is, after all, a movie, a drama, an entertainment (if you will), not a documentary. For all of our wailing about the lack of historical knowledge, awareness, teaching and reading, historical and biographical movies increasingly feel compelled to pay a much heavier duty in period-correct appearances than the costume-dramas of our parents’ generation, and it’s satisfying to see that Spielberg pays his duty so lavishly. But a preoccupation with authenticity at the expense of story has capsized more than a few historical movies at their dock, and Lincoln has not entirely escaped that problem.

The fundamental concern of Lincoln is the passage of the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln’s struggles to make that passage happen in the House of Representatives. This is, in other words, partly a courtroom drama and partly a re-incarnation of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And there is great drama to be found in the floor-fights and speeches which led to the 13th Amendment’s adoption on January 31, 1865. David Straithern, who unquestioningly deserves a Best Supporting Oscar for his depiction of William Seward, conducts the back-room log-rolling necessary to assemble the requisite two-thirds majority, seconded by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (whose rapid-fire verbal savagery still manages to remind me more of Agent K than the Old Commoner). The bad guys appear in the form of George Hunt Pendleton (the disappointed Democratic nominee for vice-president in 1864) and Fernando Wood, the sleazy New York Democrat. Happily, when the final vote is taken, the bad guys lose. Spielberg invents a clever cut-away moment for the amendment’s roll-call vote: Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax is in the process of announcing the amendment’s passage when the camera blinks onto Lincoln, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, hearing bells and artillery salutes beginning to go off.

But good as this story is, Spielberg cannot resist trying to make it better by heaping several layers of counter-point on top of it. There is, for one thing, the Confederate peace commissioners whom Francis Preston Blair (in a hefty performance by Hal Holbrook, himself one of the great screen Lincolns) begs Lincoln to meet with. Blair’s genuinely eloquent plea for Lincoln to concentrate on negotiating peace and to stopping the killing sets up a conflict between Lincoln’s desire to end the war, and the knowledge that an end to the war will pull all the wind out of the sails of the 13th Amendment, since the amendment is being sold in Congress as a measure which, however radical in racial terms, will force the war to a conclusion. If Lincoln can get peace without needing the amendment, why have the amendment at all? Straithern’s Seward puts this dilemma very neatly when he asks Lincoln bluntly: do you want to end the war or get the amendment?

The Democrats in Congress, who denounce the amendment as the opened-gate to black equality (and even women’s voting), would like nothing so much as to welcome the Confederate commissioners to Washington. But here is where Lincoln is profoundly torn. He really does want the amendment and peace. Yet another counterpoint emerges here in the person of Robert Todd Lincoln, his eldest son, who wants to join the Army. But Mary Lincoln will hear nothing of so monstrous a risk, and so both Robert and his mother become another argument in favor of peace.

On the recommendation of General Grant, Lincoln sets up a meeting with the peace commissioners. He hopes to keep this under wraps, so as not to feed the Democrats’ campaign against the amendment, even to the point of concealing it from Seward. But – enter another line of counterpoint -- the word leaks out all the same, and Lincoln escapes a debacle over the vote for the amendment only by issuing a written assurance that there are no Confederate commissioners in Washington. (They were not, of course, in Washington, but cooling their heels at Hampton Roads, where Lincoln would shortly meet with them, but no one in the Democratic caucus seems to have caught-on to Lincoln’s lawyer-like evasion).

In the end, the righteous triumph. But the interweaving of these story lines, while intended to heighten the conflict between peace and justice, actually burden it down. Like Spielberg’s Amistad (which Lincoln so often visually resembles, with its smoky interiors and heavy shadows), Lincoln is a tremendously long and talky movie – a good two-and-half hours – a full half-hour of which might have easily ended-up on the cutting-room floor without missing a beat. For instance: the Robert Todd Lincoln sequences merely highlight what has already been highlighted; the climactic vote on passage of the amendment could have cut at once to the Second Inaugural without costing anything. Even the opening scene, with the quartet of soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address, really does nothing to launch the overall trajectory of Lincoln, and the two brief battlefield moments are little more than contrived interjections of emotional commentary (which is all the more surprising, coming from the director of Saving Private Ryan).

Even so, the talkiness of Lincoln is high-quality talkiness. Spielberg’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, puts into Lincoln’s mouth an explanation of the legal technicalities of the presidential war powers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the need for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery which is so clear that Lincoln himself could have admired it. Lincoln’s rebuff to Thaddeus Stevens’ radicalism, staged between the two in the basement kitchen of the White House, is built around the image of a compass. That compass has a needle which points only one way, Lincoln says, to a clear and unfailing north, and in just the uncompromising way Stevens wants to conduct politics. The hazard for the traveler is that the north-pointing needle fails to indicate the swamps in the way of getting there. Stevens and Lincoln both understand this, and how it will likely make them enemies in the conduct of Reconstruction. (As Lincoln tells Grant, he wants no hangings after the war, and if Jeff Davis wants to go in exile, Lincoln will let him, rather than remorselessly tracking the arch-traitor down). But for the moment, the Lincoln and Stevens will work together, because both of them have worked in the direction of this amendment all of their lives. Which, by the way, introduces yet another sub-plot to Lincoln, about the necessity of unholy political means to obtain holy political ends. In a very great way, this is not a movie about the hold-your-nose unpleasantness of democracy; it’s about how the unpleasantness is not nearly so unpleasant as it is portrayed by democracy’s cultured despisers.

Cumbersome and over-complicated as it is, Lincoln is still filled with a certain robust joy in the rough-and-tumble of American politics. In an age when so many people puffingly complain about gridlock, lobbying, campaign money, and inefficiency, Lincoln embraces all of them, and good comes out of it. It is, despite its over-length, a movie of confidence – confidence in politics, confidence in a very skilled yet principled politician, confidence in the self-created mazes of our representative democracy. And Day-Lewis’s Lincoln, haggard but smiling, tormented and yet fundamentally serene in his knowledge of doing right, carries even the slowest and most awkward moments toward a fundamental affirmation of truth and purpose.

The queue has grown longer even as I think about this. I want to tell them that Lincoln will be worth the wait, and worth the length. They are about to see what we so often deplore as mere sausage-making, and they will love it. They will see, in politics, how law and justice embrace. I step out into the chilly autumn evening, rejoicing.