West Wing, 1865

Lincoln_2012_Teaser_PosterOn 31 January 2013 I went to see Lincoln, exactly 148 years after the events depicted in the climax of the film. Rather a neat symmetry there, I felt. As for the rest of it …

Part of the problem is that the film didn’t end on 31 January. The story ends there, and the moment when Lincoln hears the bells proclaiming his victory, or the moment when Thaddeus Stevens climbs into bed with his black mistress and they read the 13th amendment, either would have made a satisfactory conclusion to the film. After all, we know what comes after.

But Spielberg does not, cannot, end the film there. Instead, there is a coda in which we leap forward to seeing Lincoln and Grant sitting on a porch outside a little house where Lincoln instructs Grant to set easy terms when the Confederates surrender. (This is one of the historically wrong moments in the film: the meeting was actually aboard the River Queen, and both General Sherman and Admiral Porter were present. Why this could not be shown as it happened is beyond me, after all, Colonel Ely Parker, the Seneca Indian who was on Grant’s staff appears twice in the film and is in the credits even though he does not speak. And Lee, of course, has a non-speaking role. So it couldn’t have been beyond the wit of man to give Sherman and Porter non-speaking roles.) Then we move on to April 14th, and all sorts of portentous foreshadowing, such as the black servant watching Lincoln shambling along the White House corridor, or Lincoln and Mary in the carriage when he talks about wanting to take a train west which, of course, his body will be doing in just a few days’ time. We don’t, thankfully, see the assassination, or Booth proclaiming ‘Sic semper tyrannis’, but we switch to the boarding house across from the theatre where Gideon Welles gets to declaim: ‘Now he belongs to the ages’ (practically the only line Welles speaks in the entire film). None of this is relevant to the body of the film, and it is an ending that we know about; the only purpose this coda serves is sentimental. Just as the final frames of the film catch a brief snatch of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, bookending the opening of the film in which callow soldiers unconvincingly recite the Gettysburg Address back to him. These, of course, are the two speeches that flank the statue in the Lincoln Memorial. So by this bookending trick, Spielberg turns a rather good film about Lincoln the wily politician into a rather gauche film about Lincoln the marble statue.

Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles

It is, in other words, Spielberg giving free rein to the worst angels of his nature. And this sentimentality keeps cropping up throughout the film, often getting in the way of the reality. The film opens, for instance, on a battle scene (the only battle scene in the film), in which we have hand-to-hand fighting in deep mud. I have no idea which battle that is supposed to be. You often get references to mud in civil war histories (Burnside’s infamous ‘Mud March’ for instance); weather was important to the soldier on the ground and so generally got recorded, but I don’t recall reading of a battle in the mud like that. The scene is there to show black soldiers in close and desperate action, and is perhaps meant to prefigure the mud of the trenches in the First World War; it does not show the civil war as it would more likely have been experienced by black soldiers.

And I’m not going to make too much of a point about Spielberg’s obsession with fathers and sons. There is a lot of material concerning the relationship between Lincoln and his wife and their three sons, but to make it into the sort of father-son issue that Spielberg cannot seem to leave alone is perhaps to distort reality just a little.

Historically, of course, the major problem with the film is that it is a white person’s version of black history. We see black soldiers fighting at the beginning, and then two black men talking rather eloquently with Lincoln until they are interrupted by two white soldiers who want to recite the Gettysburg Address. The complaint that the black soldiers make about pay is genuine, but pushed out of the way by the way the scene is structured. And after that, there are no significant black characters. There is a black servant in the White House, Thaddeus Stevens’ mistress, and Elizabeth Keckley, the black seamstress (‘modiste’) who was Mary Lincoln’s confidante. Keckley was a prominent civil rights activist who founded the Contraband Relief Association and would later write a book about her years working in the White House, so it is reasonable to make her the concerned, informed and eloquent character portrayed in the film (though her activism, of course, is carefully elided). But, she is being used by Spielberg (and by Tony Kushner) to stand in for an awful lot of other black players in this game. The most prominent omission from the film, of course, is Frederick Douglass, who spent a vast amount of the civil war in the White House campaigning for just such issues as the 13th amendment, and who surely would not have been absent from the scene at this crucial moment. Keckley’s role as stand-in for the entire black race is distilled into one brief exchange with the president, in which her expression of black fears and aspirations is used primarily to display Lincoln’s sympathy. What we take from the exchange, in other words, is more about how good Lincoln is than how impassioned and empowered Keckley and other black campaigners are. But even this representative of black activists is misused in the film. We see her accompanying Mary Lincoln to the congressional debates every day, sitting prominently in the front row of the balcony. And yet, on the day of the final vote, a party of black people is ostentatiously led into a row of seats in the balcony, which causes an uproar on the floor of the chamber. Out of this uproar, one congressman makes a speech of welcome, during the course of which he declares that they are the first representatives of their race ever to grace that balcony. Just a few seats along, very prominent and visible, is Keckley, just as she has been throughout the debate. So either the congressman was lying (I suspect not, I have a feeling that set piece speeches like this are taken from Doris Kearns Godwin’s source book, Team of Rivals, and hence come originally from the Congressional record), or Spielberg/Kushner is simply admitting that Keckley just would not have been there. She is placed on that balcony so the camera can show a concerned black face as an image of what the debates are about, not because that was where she would have been.

Of course, this is dramatic shorthand. The film makers have to compress several weeks of intense debate, chicanery, bribery and coercion into a drama of just over two hours. There has to be dramatic licence, they have to use readily identifiable symbols to get the point across. Nevertheless, they have chosen a pretty young black woman (Keckley was actually in her late 40s at the time) rather than a grizzled old black man (Douglass was exactly the same age as Keckley), and that choice says a lot for how much is prettified in the film. The same choices are there in the way Spielberg uses West Wing-style filming techniques (people introduced to a scene by a shot of their feet walking along a corridor, people constantly in motion, people addressing someone who remains out of shot, the camera restless throughout meetings until it is time for the serious point at which time it becomes very still) as if that is now the default way to portray political drama. And we cannot forget John Williams’s bland score, which draws an unmissable big black line under every significant plot point, emotional climax or important character, and only swells into something vaguely interesting in a sub-Aaron Copeland manner over the closing credits.

All of which will suggest that this is a deeply troubling film. There is so much wrong, in tone, treatment and conflict with the historical record, that I was repeatedly jerked out of my enjoyment of the film. And yet, for the most part, I did enjoy it.

Edwin Stanton

Edwin Stanton

Wilmer McLean

Wilmer McLean

I enjoyed it in part because of the look of the film. I cannot remember another film that seems to have taken such care to make the actors resemble their historical originals. In the one cabinet meeting we see, I recognised Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Welles before either had a chance to speak simply because they so closely resemble their photographs. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens has always looked to me, in his photographs, as if he had died ten days before the picture was taken, yet Jackie Earle Haley gets the look pretty accurately. I was also intrigued by the appearance of the actor playing Yeaman, one of the Democrats persuaded to vote for the amendment. It was only later that I realised he had been made up to look just like Wilmer McLean, the Virginia grocer whose home was the site of the first battle of Manassas and who then moved to escape the war only for his new front parlor to be used for the surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens

The main players aren’t quite so accurate. Tommy Lee Jones is a little too robust for Thaddeus Stevens (though I liked the subtle emphasis on his cane; since it was never mentioned, I wonder how many in the audience would realise he acquired his limp when he was beaten almost to death on the floor of that very chamber on the eve of the war by a pro-slavery Congressman who promptly received hundreds of canes to replace the one he broke in the attack). Jared Harris is completely wrong as Grant. David Strathairn doesn’t quite have the nose for William H. Seward (who does?), but still looks reasonably like his portraits. Sally Field doesn’t quite have the flesh for Mary Todd Lincoln, but the madness, oh yes, she comes close with that.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

And then there is Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln himself, which is clearly going to add to his haul of trophies. There are moments, usually in close up, when you see the actor rather than the character; but mostly you don’t. He looks like those late portraits of Lincoln; he moves like somebody uncomfortable in his body, which is an impression one gets from most of the biographies of the man. The voice may not be quite right, reports suggest it was rather high and squeaky rather than the soft and creaky that Day-Lewis adopts, but it is pretty close. Time and again, with the actors at least, I felt I was watching moving photographs from 1865.

I wasn’t always as convinced by the scenery, though the old industrial buildings look around the hospital felt exactly right.

William H. Seward

William H. Seward

But it is in the relationships that, I think, the film mostly gets it right. The scene where Stanton explodes as Lincoln is about to launch into yet another of his folksy anecdotes perfectly sums up the relationship between the two men. While in Seward you can clearly see someone who started out believing that Lincoln was the wrong choice for the job and he, Seward, should have been chosen (he was far from alone in this, at the time a significant part of the Republican Party believed that Seward was the natural choice as their presidential candidate, and that feeling persisted throughout most of Lincoln’s term of office), but who has, over the years, developed a grudging respect for the other man, even while remaining unconvinced by many of Lincoln’s policies and actions. Alexander Stephens also comes across well; he was a pragmatist and probably the cleverest man in the Confederate government. By the time of the aborted peace mission that features in the film he knew that the South was beaten, and he knew that slavery was over as a result; but at the same time he knew that he would never be able to sell that idea to the rest of the Confederacy. This is clearly shown by the two men who accompany him through Union lines, they might accept that their war to preserve slavery has ended in defeat, but they cannot accept that as a result they must give up slavery. Stephens and Lincoln knew each other of old, and the look of helplessness they exchange as the negotiations inevitably fail feels exactly as it must have been.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

The main focus of the film, of course, is on Lincoln himself. I’ve seen a number of comments that seem surprised that Lincoln is not portrayed as the martyred saint, the big white marble statue of the Lincoln Memorial, but is rather a politician who is not above using underhand methods. What they fail to realise is that of course Lincoln was Machiavellian, how could he not be. By the time of the film, Lincoln had spent four years heading up a cabinet every single one of whose members thought they could do the job better than him (Doris Kearns Godwin’s book, Team of Rivals, is accurately titled). He could not have done that job as well as he did without being able to connive and chisel, to offer with one hand and take back with the other. He was a consummate politician, with all the dirty trickery that inevitably entailed (especially at that time), what marks him out is what he used those dirty tricks to achieve. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see that side of Lincoln, what shocked me (although, given that this was (a) Hollywood and (b) Spielberg, it did not in the least surprise me) was how much the film still tried to make him into the marble saint. The two key scenes in this respect are the cabinet meeting and the conversation with Elizabeth Keckley on the steps of the White House. In the cabinet meeting he provides a masterful explanation for why he needs to push through the amendment at that moment (Kushner’s script, it has to be said, is very good, if rather wordy and at times inaudible), a speech that also acknowledges how much he used emergency powers to push through measures of doubtful legality, and how much of this was steered by a lifetime opposition to slavery. In the conversation with Keckley he gives an emotional edge to this opposition, and also starts to give thought to the future of the freed slaves. Both are true, but not necessarily the whole truth. Lincoln’s attitude towards freeing the slaves was far more nuanced, if not downright ambivalent, than these speeches suggest. He was a pragmatist, ready to give up on freeing the slaves if it suited the war aims, and he wasn’t a wholehearted supporter of giving blacks the vote (that was Thaddeus Stevens, not Lincoln, whatever the film might have hinted); indeed he spent quite a long time actively considering the possibility of sending all freed slaves to Africa. So we get a Lincoln who is shown to be a little bit better, a little bit more saintly, than he actually was. Which means that his politicking to get the measure through comes across more as slumming than the skilled manoeuvring that he did so well. I am a great admirer of Lincoln, and I am astounded by how well Daniel Day-Lewis embodies him in this film, but it still feels to me that the film sidles away from what it set out to do. When it comes to the test, Spielberg still prefers the romantic myth, the sentimental image, to the dramatic but ambiguous reality.

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5 thoughts on “West Wing, 1865

  1. I enjoyed watching Lincoln, partly because it is such a handsome film. But I ultimately had the same problem with it that I did with Watchmen: it feels less like a film in its own right than it does a beautiful advertisement for its source material (in this case, DKG’s Team of Rivals).

    Part of the problem is, as you allude, that the film is really about the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, not Lincoln. He’s one character among many—an important one, but not the core of the film.

    • The advert works, I’m going to read Team of Rivals.

      With the proviso that Daniel Day-Lewis is far and away the best screen Lincoln, I do wish Spielberg had been able to make up his mind whether he was making a film about politics or a film about one man. The trouble is, he just can’t resist being hagiographic. I wonder what the result would have been if someone else had made this film?

      • I actually thought the screenplay was the best thing about the film—though DDL was a close second. And, yes, that indecision on Spielberg’s part is the film’s fundamental weakness.

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