To say that a film is reverent in its portrayal of a historical character is usually a criticism. Stephen Spielberg’s great film Lincoln (2012) is reverent in its treatment of the nation’s 16th president. But its reverence is embedded in a relatively careful and accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s character and times, specifically in its depiction of his interactions with his family and with members of the House of Representatives as he campaigns for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States.
Lincoln is the great national hero. One can find other great figures from our history worthy of regard, but Lincoln stands above all. As a film Lincoln does what every other portrayal of Lincoln has attempted—to give a realistic, compelling portrayal of the man. No representation of a historic figure such as Lincoln can be wholly or mostly accurate. Who knows what the man was really like? We have no recordings of his voice, no video records, only written descriptions of him, opinions, his writings, accounts of what he said and did. Spielberg’s film, and Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the title character, takes to heart descriptions of Lincoln’s voice as high-pitched. Such a voice runs counter to what we typically expect of our heroes—we need them to speak in booming basso profundo. But Spielberg’s and Lewis’ Lincoln is absolutely believable. Cinematic and speculative portrayal though he may be, this Lincoln is the One.
It is not so much what Lincoln actually was, what he actually believed and said, how he behaved. It is what we project through him about ourselves and our nation. Lincoln incorporates our own views of the ideals and virtues that animate the nation, at least the nation as we’d like it to be. Spielberg and Lewis give us that Lincoln.
Spielberg at least twice in the film uses indirection to present several of the most famous events of Lincoln’s life. One of these is the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln gives more than two years before the time span of the film (January to April 1865). We experience it through Union solders who recite the speech back to Lincoln while he’s visiting a battlefield. Another such incident is the assassination. Rather than dramatizing it directly, Spielberg shows us another theatre, where an opera is playing, attended by the young Lincoln son Tad. A stage manager runs on stage to announce that the president has been shot, and we experience the announcement and its meaning through the reaction on the boy’s face, and through the reactions of the people in the audience.
As radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as one of the film’s two best supporting actors. I could never quite grow comfortable with him in the role, but his cranky version of the aging senator who was a master at invective and insult and who throughout his life was an ardent supporter of rights for American blacks—and who regarded Lincoln as too cautious and conservative—is very fine. Sally Fields, as the depressive, sometimes histrionic Mary Todd, is good as well. Her Mary Todd Lincoln understands how the public views her, and sometimes believes her husband feels that way as well. On occasion she is completely irrational. Despite her apparent illness and ill manners (she lambasts Stevens at a White House party for daring to investigate her spending habits), despite her excessive worry about the oldest son Robert’ desire to enlist in the Union Army, the film shows her as a devoted supporter of her husband, especially of his desire to pass the 13th Amendment, which will, if passed, she believes justify placing her son at risk.
Spielberg gives us a Lincoln with blemishes. He yells at his wife in one scene, slaps his son after an insulting remark in another, is willing to offer federal appointments to House members in return for their votes. He is so fast to tell homespun tales during tense moments that sometimes the irritation on the faces of the people around him is clear. But overriding these negatives is the figure of the man who believed in the nation, in the Union, in freedom for the slaves, who took upon himself the weight and suffering of the thousands who died in the Civil War, North and South, fighting for what they believed. This is the Nation’s Lincoln, the man of national legend and myth, however true or not he may be, and this is the Lincoln at the heart of Spielberg’s film. In our own time of crisis, when everything seems in danger of tumbling down, this is a compelling figure indeed.