Lincoln: A Tall Man in a Small Film

November 14, 2012

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Lincoln: A Tall Man in a Small Film

With his unimpeachable performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (which opens nationwide on Friday), Daniel Day-Lewis seems ready to become the first man ever to win three Best Actor Oscars. After his awards for My Left Foot in 1989 and There Will Be Blood in 2007, Day-Lewis is tied for the career lead with Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, and Sean Penn.

Hollywood had never previously managed to make the 16th president seem interesting, so Day-Lewis’s delightful turn as a genial politician more crafty and good-humored than the Lincoln Memorial’s man of marble will be hard to beat for the Academy Award.

Abraham Lincoln’s sense of humor was documented in the countless books published by everyone who had ever encountered him. The challenge that Day-Lewis somehow overcomes is that the prairie politician’s jokes seemed corny even 150 years ago.

Nobody today knows much about what Lincoln’s body language looked like, but Day-Lewis’s version seems perfectly plausible to audiences, perhaps because he’s channeling the slightly creaky movements of the robot in Disneyland’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction. And why not? We all saw Animatronic Abe as kids, so that’s what we expect.

“The great questions at play during the Civil War were always going to be decided by force of arms, with the winner imposing his will upon the loser.”

The only shortcoming of Day-Lewis’s performance is that at six foot-oneish, he is about three inches shorter than the awkwardly tall Lincoln, who didn’t fit in most chairs, beds, and doors of his day. The 6’4” Liam Neeson was long attached to Spielberg’s project, but the broad-shouldered Irishman would have been too physically imposing. (Why can’t America produce tall movie stars anymore?)

Day-Lewis is famous for the wonderfully demented lengths to which he will go as a method actor to stay in character for months at a time (such as having the long-suffering movie crew carry him around the set in his role as the paralytic in My Left Foot). Yet in the 2000s, his strength has become not method mumbling, but his superb breeding (he’s the son of poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis) and classically trained diction. He’s unveiled sensationally stagey 19th-century accents in the roles of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York and Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Now he’s given Abe Lincoln a tenor voice ideal for rapidly, yet comprehensibly, dashing through complex and lawyerly sentence structures.

Lincoln had a precisely logical mind. Perhaps due to his being an intense re-reader of the limited number of high-quality books (especially Shakespeare and Burns) available to him in Indiana and Illinois, he also had great talent as a phrasemaker. On the other hand, Lincoln’s utterances tended to be knotted. It’s no anomaly that the Gettysburg Address, with its daunting ideas-to-words ratio, made little impression on those few who could hear Lincoln’s thin voice. His statements lacked the rhetorical cultivation that, say, Winston Churchill could absorb having grown up in the seat of empire.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner’s lines do justice to the intricacy of the historical Lincoln’s serious remarks, but even with the world’s best movie star delivering them, theatergoers will often wish they could pause and rewind.

Beyond Day-Lewis’s stupendous impersonation, Lincoln is a relatively small movie. Spielberg has become a memorabilia collector in his maturity, and his new film reflects his admirable but unwieldy urge to accurately portray what all the stuff in the White House and the Capitol looked like during the last winter of the Civil War. Unfortunately, after four years of exhausting struggle, Washington was cluttered, worn down, and poorly lit. Worse, the Recent Unpleasantness marked the apogee of male facial-hair creativity. Thus, Lincoln is not a pretty sight.

All the many minor black characters in Spielberg’s movie are as noble and boring as any in a Stanley Kramer movie from a half-century ago. They are so piously dull that they make even Barack Obama seem as entertaining as Kevin Hart.

Lincoln’s plot focuses narrowly upon the Republican Administration’s petty political maneuvers in January 1865 to persuade (i.e., bribe with postmaster jobs) enough losing Democratic Congressmen to get the House of Representatives to vote for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Lincoln wanted a Constitutional Amendment to make permanent his executive Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863 and more or less endorsed by Union voters in 1864’s elections.

Spielberg and Kushner make a couple of attempts to explain why it was so crucial for the outgoing House to pass the Amendment by Lincoln’s self-imposed deadline of January 1865 rather than merely waiting for the incoming Republican-dominated House that had been elected the previous November. But even with the superb instrument of Day-Lewis to deliver them, Lincoln’s rationalizations about how this would persuade the South to suddenly stop fighting don’t make much sense.

Wouldn’t closing off the last fond hope for a deal simply make Johnny Reb more desperate to achieve a stalemate on the battlefield? In subsequent contrast, the losing Germans in World War I tricked themselves into an early armistice in the delusional hope that Woodrow Wilson’s moderate-sounding Fourteen Points ensured them a compromise (to be negotiated later). That tactic seems less honorable than Lincoln’s, if a lot more likely to work.

The events of Lincoln begin just days after William Tecumseh Sherman had successfully concluded his March to the Sea with the capture of Savannah, Georgia on December 21, 1864. Sherman’s revolution in warfare, in which the Union began to wage war upon the Confederacy’s civilian economic infrastructure, goes unmentioned in Lincoln, even though it made possible the Congressional events depicted in the film.

The battles of 1862-63, culminating with Gettysburg (where only one civilian died), were arguably the closest the human race came to war truly being (in Churchill’s words) “cruel and magnificent.” By 1864, however, the War Between the States was turning “cruel and squalid” as both sides saw less sense in risking everything on a decisive engagement. Sherman took this logic of risk aversion the furthest, ensuring that the stronger side would win through his scorched-earth policy of waging war upon the defenseless. By the climax of Lincoln with the House vote on January 31, 1865, Sherman had begun to march north, leaving South Carolina smoldering in his wake.

The great questions at play during the Civil War were always going to be decided by force of arms, with the winner imposing his will upon the loser. The problem with a Civil War movie that features very little war in it is that the precise steps by which the politicians implemented battlefield decisions are of only modest interest, even with Daniel Day-Lewis as the star.


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