The Moviegoer: A Portrait of President Lincoln

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln might be described as a brilliant portrait, a distinctive picture of a particular historical moment that gives us representative insight into a United States at Civil War. But, more than that, we’re treated to filmic portraits of a President who is able to lead us out of such a blunt and brutal national duplicity. Rather than attempt an epic biopic spanning an entire life or even an entire war, Spielberg focuses on a relatively short section of Team of Rivals–Doris Kearns Goodwin’s critically acclaimed biography. Spielberg’s engrossing film is a portrait in various senses of the word.  As a whole and in its parts, the film functions like a vignette (series of vignettes) stamping an enduring impression. Spielberg’s portraiture is one which seeks to define a President by rendering a specific moment in history, orienting itself around the passage of the 13th Amendment in an attempt to sketch a historicity with refined dramatic effect.

Lincoln begins with brief shots of bloodshed, but battle images between the North and the South are not central to this paced political thriller; instead, they announce the urgency of the moment within the film. It’s January 1865 and America is in the midst of an ongoing Civil War, with countrymen bludgeoning one another, in part (the weight of which is debated), over the plight of African Americans long dehumanized by slavery. In the first term of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln knows that the war is soon coming to an end, but wants to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives while he has some leverage. The sense of the nation’s internal battle is mediated in various ways. In what is my favorite review of the film that I’ve read, David Denby classifies (and praises) Lincoln as a “legislative thriller.” The label is appropriate, suggestive of the way in which Spielberg chooses to convey the enormous crisis as a political civil war, infused with the dreadful consequence of a legitimate Civil War. These stakes mean that the portrait of the 16th President involves depicting how he went about presiding; that is, it is a depiction of the qualitative content of his authority and leadership.

But the film provides an added dimension to this vision of President Lincoln by sketching glimpses of a lesser crisis in what we might describe as an unpleasant family portrait. Lincoln’s particular struggles with his wife, Mary Todd, and his oldest son, Robert, are, as several critics have noted, a way of highlighting the Civil War as a familial crisis. Yet, it’s also a way of capturing a more intimate example of Lincoln’s presiding qualities in his roles as father and husband. The First Lady is riddled with psychological wounds inflicted, in part, by the death of their son, Willie. Behind closed doors, and sometimes publicly, Mary is more an ever-present burden of potentially embarrassing behavior than a reassuring support,  yet rendered in a way that we cannot help but sympathize with her. Mary’s depressive fits threaten her marital union with Lincoln, even leading him to consider having her committed to an insane asylum. Giving their relationship even more cause for concern is that Robert, against his mother’s wishes in particular, desires to enlist in the War and fears the label of cowardice while his parents fear the loss of another son. Lincoln’s familial crises are, in a way, Civil War writ small: a union faltering, sons and brothers being lost to death.

Formally, each shot looks like a portrait–depicting a kind of painted realism that makes each moment, each person and setting, seem iconic. It’s a nice Spielbergian flourish in what is otherwise a film that is uncharacteristically restrained for the director. Spielberg (along with frequent collaborating cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) achieves the look of a naturalistic portrait with dimmed indoor lighting and soft indistinct colors that, when coupled with a ray of natural light from a large window or the orange glow from a fireplace, highlights the faces of each of its characters. More specifically, it lends a majestic feel to facial expressions. And, in a film that operates as a political thriller, achieving tension and anticipation via sustained rhetorical arguments and paused, introspective gazes, the natural light-portrait effect lends these moments an added gravitas that’s unmistakable without ever being obtrusive. The voice of reason becomes a source of light in a time of darkness.

We often learn the most about a person during times of crisis, and so it is in this depiction of the 16th President, who, in the midst of Civil War and trying to pass the 13th Amendment, is shown to be a formidable orator. At first glance, one might have been deceived into thinking Lincoln a weak person. Daniel Day-Lewis, who in a superb turn once again shows that he’s one of the preeminent actors of our time, gives the President’s likeness a striking frailty. He’s tall and thin in such a way that he’s seemingly unaccustomed to his body in his movements, like he might break at any moment. His voice is not conventionally powerful but shrill and creaky–almost straining. This film’s still portrait of the President would convince you he was always cloaked in a blanket, in danger of freezing without it. Yet, in short order, we come to see that appearances are deceiving when one has the great powers of persuasion. In a “legislative thriller,” these powers are essential in conveying Lincoln’s revered status. He speaks with an eminent reasonableness which confirms his authority as President in spite of his frail appearance.

Of course, legislative reasoning invokes the philosophy of lawmaking, which necessarily involves discussion of the rights and privileges endemic to humanity. Toward the goal of persuading his political opponents to formally abolish slavery in the country, Lincoln must deliver convincing arguments supported by a well-cultivated moral reasoning. Yet, we also come to see that “Honest Abe” made room in his moral philosophy for a necessary pragmatism. Most characteristic of Lincoln’s political powers, though, is his love for telling a good story. He is often like a skilled preacher giving an illustration, sometimes to make an argument come to life, other times to bide time (to the irritation of his opponents). At times melancholic in his acquaintance with tragedy, Lincoln is not only equipped with the wisdom of suffering endured, he also brings an endearing sense of humor to the drama of democracy. The folkish insight of his reasoned story-telling is often shown to be the fruit of silent musing, with shots of a focused stare that dramatize the inner workings of a developing argument.In short, Lincoln is a masterful dialogue-driven film that never feels dry because its fine cast of characters–led by Day-Lewis as Lincoln–are at the height of their political game in a most suspenseful historical moment.

What Spielberg achieves here is, arguably, no less an adventure than his more obviously adventurous films. It’s an adventure defined by a President willing to task himself with the noble undertaking of passing a largely unpopular amendment during a time when the nation is at risk of irreparable damage. It’s a portrait of an imperfect, but admirable man presiding in the midst of crisis, a President who, to some degree, invokes divine resources to make his argument for enabling the rights of freedom and equality to those who have been denied them. Thankfully, Spielberg’s restraint precludes unfounded adoration, but this sense of control befits this sensible President in a way that colors his portrait with hues all the more satisfying.

Author’s Note: Mistakenly, I initially wrote that Lincoln was in the midst of his second term, when in fact it was his first. Thanks, Peter Chattaway, for the find.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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