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A Hidden-Hand President

by Ross Douthat
A review of Lincoln

A confession: When I saw the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it filled me with a creeping dread. There is a flavor of historical schmaltz that only Spielberg can brew up: Sometimes he does so in small doses, as in the sentimentalized codas attached to otherwise fine films such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, but sometimes he makes a batch large enough to drown an entire movie, and the result is a pious disappointment such as Amistad or a corny tearjerker such as last year’s War Horse.

In trailer form, Lincoln looked like it might be Amistad II: Judgment Day. The slo-mo battlefield scenes, the backlit shots of Honest Abe, the swelling chords, the bewigged men in darkened rooms arguing about equality, the Gettysburg Address voiceover — with such ingredients, how could Spielberg resist the tug of sentiment, the pull of piety, the urge to carve a straightforward morality play through history’s cunning passages?

As it turns out, he couldn’t resist completely, but in the course of Lincoln he resists enough to make the film succeed. The story lumbers, but it also breathes; the American past is sometimes a picture book of lessons for the present, but just as often it feels like a lived reality in its own right. The dialogue, courtesy of Angels in America author Tony Kushner, includes some of the intellectualized, pleased-with-itself bushwah that Kushner too often features in his plays, but mostly the script strikes the right balance between the plainspoken, the rhetorical, and the kind of half-imaginary 19th-century slanginess that David Milch perfected in Deadwood. The treacle and hagiography is mostly confined to the beginning and the end: Shave off the first and last five minutes, and you’ve shaved off the worst of Spielberg’s lapses into schmaltz.

Oh, and Daniel Day-Lewis is remarkable as the Great Emancipator. That was predictable enough, since Day-Lewis’s being remarkable — especially in a role that requires him to inhabit some figure out of the American past — is one of the few things that a filmgoer can consistently expect in a world of flux and change. But the trick with his acting is that you don’t know exactly how he’ll decide to dazzle us, and here the unexpected (though also the historically accurate) thing is how soft and high and gentle he makes Lincoln’s speaking voice, and then how perfectly that voice turns out to fit the unusual provincial who emerged to save our republic.

Gentle, prodding, rueful, performative, deceptive, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a persuader in a sea of congressional bombast, a front-porch talker in a city of would-be Roman orators, an autodidact shrewd enough to either outsmart or seduce all the politicians who think themselves his better. This is not a performance intended to throw open the mysteries of the inner man: The Lincoln of intimate life is mostly the same Lincoln we see interacting with his cabinet, his generals, the Congress, and the voters, and we’re meant to see the unhappiness of his personal relationships (with Sally Field as Mary Todd, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his eager-to-join-the-army son) as evidence that there’s an essential hiddenness required of great politicians that makes them difficult and disappointing in domestic life. And the nature of political greatness is what Day-Lewis is ultimately out to show us — what America saw in Lincoln, and what he was able to accomplish for us with those gifts.

It helps that Spielberg and Kushner have chosen the time frame for their story very cleverly. Lincoln is set in the waning days of the war, between Atlanta’s fall and Lee’s surrender, and its subject is the legislative battle over the 13th Amendment, which the president pushed through a reluctant House of Representatives in January 1865, winning over just enough Democratic votes to make the end of slavery look modestly bipartisan.

This setting has two virtues. First, it foregrounds the gritty, impious business of legislating, balancing the Spielbergian tendency toward mythmaking with the more Machiavellian pleasures of horse-trading and vote-buying (mostly accomplished by two seasoned fixers, played with a twinkle by James Spader and John Hawkes).

Second, it takes us to a moment in the conflict when the politics were messy but the moral stakes were relatively uncomplicated. Whereas earlier in the war there was a real tension between abolitionism and Lincoln’s quest to preserve the union, by 1865 the inevitability of military victory more than justified postponing peace negotiations — the hardest decision we see the movie’s Lincoln make — until slavery’s extinction was assured. And then the cinematic story ends, with Lincoln’s life, before the realities of occupation and southern resistance intruded on the joy of legal emancipation.

More complicated realities are acknowledged, or at least hinted at — in foreshadowings of Reconstruction’s morass, in reminders that the more abolition-minded Republicans had good reasons to distrust the Lincoln White House, and in references to Lincoln’s many extra-constitutional wartime moves.

But mostly the filmmakers have pulled off an impressive artistic trick. They’ve made a film that’s being hailed for its clear-eyed and realistic portrait of democracy in action, using a chronological frame that makes us feel good by keeping a lot of darker and more compromised action just offstage.

It’s a trick, I suspect, that a master politician like Lincoln would respect. In art and politics alike, what you don’t reveal matters as much as what you do.

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