In 1975, Henry Fonda gave a retrospective interview to the BBC about his career up to that point. When asked about his reaction to being suggested for the title role in John Ford’s 1939 film Young Mr. Lincoln, he said that his initial response was simply fear. Playing Lincoln, Fonda suggested, was “like playing God.” He goes on to say that only his first meeting with the director really changed this perception—Ford, in his description, was “not asking me to play the Great Emancipator, but just a backwoods country lawyer.” It may be this divided nature—a President of unprecedented political power and a well-documented willingness to expand it, combined in the same character with a folksy storyteller, able to relate to common people—that makes Lincoln so appealing even today. It is certainly one of the themes with which Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is concerned and one of the ways in which his film helps modernize our image of the 16th President.
Biographical films, of course, usually tell us more about the sympathies of the filmmaker and his or her audience than they do about the subject itself; certainly, Spielberg’s Lincoln is no exception. His narrative centers around the winter of 1865, Lincoln had just won a second term, the Civil War was coming to an inevitable close, and the President, along with his political allies, were pushing for the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. The legislative maneuvering, political arm twisting, as well as outright bribes, threats, deceptions and insults used to accomplish this goal form the core of the movie. Spielberg shows us “plain Abraham Lincoln,” as he is first introduced in Ford’s film, as a leader now willing to get his hands dirty. He must unite not only the Union, but also the Republican Party, fractured into radical factions that are reluctant to hue the party line on much of the President’s agenda and virulently divisive in their opposition. Stop me if this sounds familiar. In a scene with his cabinet that is one of the hubs of the movie, Lincoln raises his voice and pounds on the table when he insists that “I am President of the United States and am clothed in immense power.” He then suggests that how his operatives secure the necessary votes is too trifling a matter to concern him immediately; it is beneath the majesty of the office. Spielberg’s Lincoln is much more of a brawler, and as such is much more modern in his approach to the Presidency, even at risk to his sanctified reputation.
In the 225 years since Article 2 of the US Constitution was written, citizens and political scientists have been a house divided on the proper role of the U.S. President within our democratic experiment. Is the U.S. President, in fact, the leader of the free world, the universal symbol of democratic virtue and the commander in chief of the most expensive and devastating military arsenal (at least since Eisenhower) that the world has ever seen? Or is he, in Richard Neustadt’s famous phrase, “more a clerk than a king,” limited by Constitutional structure, partisan obligation and the varied constituencies to which any President is beholden? Americans seem to want the former and are prepared to pay a rather steep price to get it. We did, after all, just re-elect by a substantial margin a President cited by The Guardian as one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history for the protection of civil liberties (Lincoln is also on their list). Spielberg seems to get this, and his film uses this tension effectively both to reveal Lincoln’s own discomfort with his role as president and his willingness to embrace it to achieve broader political goals.
In John Ford’s 1939 picture, Lincoln’s first political stump speech is unassuming to say the least, “my politics are short and sweet”—Fonda insists—“like the old woman’s dance…if elected I shall be thankful, if not, it’ll be all the same.” Not exactly “Yes we can!” Because this humility and homliness are endemic to the cult of Lincoln, Spielberg keeps elements of it: heartfelt private conversations with Mary; late night visits to the telegraph office at the White House to mull war strategy with the dispatch clerks; curling up with Tad and his toy soldiers before the hearth in the White House; jokes about Ethan Allen’s visit to England; and the profusion of homilies, Shakespeare quotes and stories told endearingly to everyone from liverymen to William Seward. (The lack of a security detail around the President in 1865 is really shocking.) Always present, though, is Lincoln’s understanding that a political argument has greater power when framed as a story and his ability and willingness to utilize this understanding to maximum effect.
Not surprisingly, commentators on this movie have themselves been divided on its historical accuracy. Was Lincoln a dedicated opponent of slavery who sought emancipation as a goal from the beginning of his administration? Likely not. Why did the personal background which imbued Lincoln with a hatred of the wealthy slave oligarchy in the South—a theme brilliantly suggested in Ford’s film—not stiffen his resistance to reconciliation after the war? Unclear. How hesitant was Lincoln, given his legal training, to expand the powers of the executive office in the face of illegality and in open defiance of the judicial system? Spielberg suggests only marginally, and never when political pragmatism dictated otherwise. This may be the place where Spielberg is on the shakiest historical ground, but it also seems to be a conscious decision on his part. His portrait of Lincoln, gives us perhaps a more concise and engaging consideration of this question than has any cinematic treatment of the Great Emancipator up to now. Today’s Americans seem to feel that the modern President needs wisdom less than efficiency, and needs judgment less than resolve. Spielberg’s Lincoln suggests one important waypoint in the transition to this state of affairs. His star, Daniel Day-Lewis, offers a portrayal that reminds us that the modern President must be a kind of superhero, and just like the citizens of Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City, we may in fact get the heroes we deserve.
Warren Sprouse teaches high school in Cedar Rapids. He feels that Winter is no match for a good record collection.