The opening scene of Lincoln is ugly. It’s neither the kind of mystical ugliness meant to ignite curiosity, nor the kind of bombastic mayhem intended to make audiences lean forward, as they did during the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Instead, it presents a key battle of the American Civil War as a haphazard match of mud-wrestling, unruly and uncoordinated. Everyone’s tired of this war, as is the case with most wars, but something oft forgotten is that the people fighting them are tired too. This battle is ugly because it’s akin to a drunken fist-fight. After a pair of enamoured white youths repeat lines from The Gettysburg Address (as if reciting movie dialog in front of their favourite star), David Oyelowo’s Corporal Ira Clark finishes the speech, not as tribute to Lincoln, but as a reminder to make good on his promise.
Ira Clark mentions his gripes with the treatment of his people, even to the dissatisfaction of fellow black soldier Private Harold Green (Colman Domingo), who grins and laughs politely at Lincoln’s silly jokes. But Clark is too weary to be polite. He doesn’t just speak of slavery, but of equal pay, the ability to own property, and perhaps a hundred years down the line, the right to vote. He understands the political process, and that the long road to equality is far from ideal, the same way Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr. understood it in Selma last year, sitting in jail cell alongside Ralph Abernathy (also played by Domingo) as they fought the very right that Clark had spoken of a century earlier. It’s serendipitous that these two scenes share the actors chosen to embody the notion of timeless struggle, almost as if it’s an echo through time itself, but another thing shared by both Selma and Lincoln is their approach to backroom politics. Much like the opening war scene, there’s an ugliness to process of political change.
“I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws.”
The notion that both of Oyelowo’s characters spoke of is still being echoed today. The above quote is neither by Abraham Lincoln nor Martin Luther King, but was spoken a mere four weeks ago by Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton, as she met with activists from the Black Lives Matter movement. Lincoln is a film that speaks of political compromise, and there’s no greater compromise on display than that of Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, who in order to pass the 19th Amendment must choose between sticking to his long-held beliefs on racial equality, and making statements almost to the contrary for the sake of political procedure. It’s a case of practicality vs. ideological purity, the kind that’s relevant for anyone who’s ever considered their relationship to a social justice, let alone legal justice. At the end of the film, the full scope of Stevens’ personal struggle comes into view when he goes home to his African American partner, a woman who he wouldn’t have been able to marry until well into the next century. It was only this year that marriage equality came into full effect in the United States, and while that victory, like Stevens’ victory, is worth celebrating, the struggles of African American and LGBTQ communities are not at their end. The road is long, and the fights will go on, and on, and on.
Lincoln is the furthest thing from a hagiography, but it doesn’t avoid the President’s personal life either. While it’s a political film about the passage of the 13th Amendment, it’s also one of Spielberg’s most intricate character studies, touching on several of Lincoln’s personal relationships as they intersect with his politics. When it first came out, it was praised for its theatrical staging, and many even noted its distinctly restrained directorial style (in comparison to Spielberg’s other works) but there’s a devilish subtlety to his camera. Whenever a scene involves the changing of political dynamics, usually through Lincoln telling stories and convincing people, the frame is in constant motion. Like the social and political movements at its center, the camera rarely stops moving.
While strategizing the attack on Wilmington Port along with his cabinet, as they begin debating the impermanence of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln changes the subject and begins recounting an anecdote from his days a lawyer. As he does so, he re-captivates the attention (and the respect) of everyone in the room, as the camera moves around him to face the other members at the table. It leaves him framed to the right throughout the entire shot, a fixed a point as their gazes become fixed upon him, and our gazes on their reactions. His story continues for a few moments, as the scene cuts back to a master shot of the entire table. The frame and the tone are both leisurely, until the moment he’s asked what his story has to do with what they’ve been discussing. Before the question is even asked, Lincoln interrupts, and connects the story back to a point about his wartime powers, as the camera begins pushing slowly past the other people at the table, and in on the President.
There are several other instances of this technique in the film, where Spielberg allows other characters to enter the frame while moving the camera around Lincoln, followed by pushing in on him as he makes an important point. Where the former establishes the relationship between Lincoln and the other characters, as they either opposed him or have their minds changed, the latter is a far less complicated movement, but one that yields fascinating results, as it often occurs during the transition from (or rather, the intersection between) Abraham Lincoln the politician/storyteller, to Abraham Lincoln the fiery leader and conflicted human being. It’s this nexus that defines both the film’s approach to Lincoln, as well as our understanding of him as we watch it. The film begins and ends with two of his most famous speeches, but in between, we get to peek at the man behind curtain.
It’s a literal curtain that obscures Lincoln from our view once the votes have been counted. One of the films bolder choices was leaving the House of Representatives just as the announcement was being made so we could spend a moment with this man, now forever enshrined as America’s greatest President, before returning to the mayhem and celebration. In this moment, Lincoln belongs to History, but also to his son, who gets to share the moment with him. It’s the most defining moment of his Presidency, or perhaps any Presidency, and it exists in a dual state. We, the audience are allowed to see it from the outside, but the only people who really have a window in to its personal significance to him were those closest to him.
While the film doesn’t feel like Spielberg’s usual, awe-inspired approach to storytelling (it would’ve been counter-productive for a nuanced take on an already revered figure), there are hints of what we’ve come to expect from his direction, used in small and subtle ways. His son Tad is the only one who truly shares his moment of victory, looking up at his father’s warmth, and earlier in the film, he’s seen looking at photographic slides of child slaves as he tries to understand the horrors of oppression. He even asks the maids and butlers around the White House if they were ever beaten. It’s an innocent, simple approach, one that’s almost foreign to the film’s complex take on the events, but it grounds all the complications in a pure, unfiltered emotional reality, i.e. that of a child. Every time the photographs are brought up, Lincoln’s son isn’t the main focus. The scene is about Lincoln himself, and how he reacts to them.
Before the aforementioned war strategizing begins, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) points out that the corner of one of the official maps has been burned, and blames young Tad. Lincoln on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care. He isn’t really there to talk about strategies on the ground, because his main strategy involves abolishing slavery. It’s through a childish and innocent prank that Spielberg brings out Lincolns feelings on the conversation, and even his entire political approach, and it’s also rather fitting that these is the scene where the film’s visual language is established with regards to Lincoln, i.e. the slow push-in as he begins to reveal his true self. In an interview* for the film, Spielberg recalls his first time visiting the Lincoln Memorial at the age of four or five. At first, he was “frightened by the immensity of the statue” but what he says next feels almost revelatory of his approach to the character.
“And as I got closer and closer, I was completely captivated, by the comfort in looking at his face. It was a warmth, and a safety. I felt really safe, as a little boy looking at him. I never forgot that moment.”
Spielberg is a born filmmaker with an innate ability to capture the essence of emotion and experience, and the simple visual approach he takes to Abraham Lincoln feels like it reflects the view he had of him as a child. It’s a view we all had learning about Lincoln as children, even those of us that didn’t grow up in the United States. His historical importance, like that of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, leads to a general understanding that may sometimes exclude faults and transgressions. In effect, the things that make these figures human. For many great people who helped shape the world, History textbooks become their hagiographies. Spielberg’s curiosity with Lincoln began as a child who felt a sense of personable comfort. Not by looking at the man himself, but by taking a closer look at how History had remembered him. The film may have come out in 2012, but Spielberg’s examination of Abraham Lincoln began a long time ago, and we’re lucky to be able to witness its fruition. As we move in slowly and discovery the man behind the Historical figure, we’re re-living that moment alongside Spielberg himself over the course of two and a half hours.
“Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?”
The President asks this of a young Samuel Beckwith, before making a decision that would go on to change the course of the future. He’s speaking about himself, and about all people at the time, but in a way he’s also speaking about the film. Lincoln will last because it was designed to last. Its story was relevant then, it was relevant during the Civil Rights era, and it’s relevant even today. It’s a meticulously crafted work, with stunning performances from top to bottom. A crossroads between man and myth, its Spielberg’s singular encapsulation of the only true constant: change.
*The interview can be found on the BluRay featurette The Journey To Lincoln