A personal reading of the film Lincoln leads me down my well travelled road of Enantiodromia. The film to my mind shows us that the height of moral courage resides very closely to all manner of lying and corruption.(See the following link for more on that – http://www.nhinet.org/beran.htm ) My response to Lincoln breaks down into,
- A discussion of some of the more interesting filming choices.
- A discussion of some of the character traits of Lincoln, Leadership and some elements of broader historical context.
- A discussion of what I see as the underlying theme of Lincoln the film.
Filming Lincoln from the back was an interesting way to begin the film. It suggests that Lincoln was as much a spectator of events as he was a leader of them. In a sense Lincoln is also a spectator to himself. He must listen to soldiers recite to him his own words and meditate upon their meaning. It is towards his own compass and direction that he must turn in order to move forward.
Before reversing his decision to meet with Confederate peace delegates he refers to an axiom Euclidean geometry.The axiom – ‘Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.’ It is in response to a wireless operator telling him that he is an engineer. To my mind it Lincoln’s mention of the axiom seems to be talking past the wireless operator. This, however, underscores for me the private source of Lincoln’s leadership impulse. Throughout the film the symbols he uses are those of solitary pursuits. He refers to landing the amendment as being like harpooning the whale which draws Ahab and his lonely obsession immediately to mind. At another point the imagery of a compass is used calling to mind the profession of surveying. The profession of George Washington. The mention of Euclid, however, deserves special attention.
Before we get into the meat of Euclid’s significance there is an irresistible irony that must be shared. Euclid, seemingly the source of Lincoln’s decision to scupper the peace negotiations in favour of the 13th amendment is also used as a source for the opposing thought by Thomas Jefferson. He mentions Euclid once in his Notes on the State of Virginia to stress the inferiority of the black man. He says that in the faculty of reason blacks were ‘much inferior’ to whites, ‘as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid.’ Euclid for Lincoln, however, represents the solitary source of his knowledge. He set himself the task of mastering the six books of Euclid after one dismal term in congress and political failure. While his other fellow lawyers were snoring on the eighth circuit. Lincoln maintained his mental equilibrium nonetheless and concentrated his thoughts into the small hours of the morning. Euclid then represents the ability of Lincoln to ignore ‘interminable snoring’ and the voices of others to follow his own slowly worked out logic. Euclid represents the solitary pursuit that worked as a salve in the aftermath of political defeat and that is why it is interesting in terms of its placement in the film.
Returning to Lincoln’s character traits, as per the film, we find that there is a strong overbearing influence of his wife. We find that this marital misery is given a lot of time and this is another thing that Hertzberg is critical of. It is good that this influence gets such attention because it is a recurring trope with powerful political leaders that they are really, to the point of embarrassment, unable to handle their family relationships. Lincoln obviously here has more difficulty in dealing with his wife than with the affairs of State. Napoleon was similarly humiliated by his cuckolding wife and his overbearing mother who impressed upon him the importance of keeping political appointments within the family. His indulgence of his family is probably a large factor in his downfall. In giving control of the Spanish campaign he ensured that it would play out dismally. In the case of Stalin Simon Sebag Montefiore has him hiding from his wife in the toilet during her hysterics. The film Lincoln has Robbie, Lincoln’s soon, accusing him of not allowing him to enlist in the war because he is afraid of his wife. Lincoln slaps him and this for me confirms the truth of Robbie’s words. The man who is able to quietly decide in the midst of a civil war cannot separate himself out from the views and emotions of his wife.
Finally, we see in Lincoln that Lincoln was extremely self-reflexive. As discussed above the filming choices have Lincoln brought to himself. He is very much a witness of his patterns and his behaviour. When an exasperated Stanton remarks that he does not want to hear another of Lincoln’s interminable stories Lincoln takes special relish in telling the story. The use of the story as a conversation interrupter and impasse breaker is something that we see again and again throughout the film. It is something of which Lincoln, both the man and the film, are very aware of. Another feature that shows this self-reflexivity is that he allows his personal life to interrupt his public life when it becomes too much to deal with and vice versa with his private life.
Depicting the assassination of Lincoln off screen was another interesting filming choice. The internet furnishes me with a Spielberg interview where he talks about not wanting to exploit history and talks about the assassination being done ad nauseam in other films and programmes. On this point I have to agree with Spielberg and the clip above shows just how badly the assassination can be depicted. There is more to the decision though. The audience is tricked when it sees instead watching some show in another theatre. For a few seconds we think we are in Ford’s theatre and we wonder what’s Tad doing there and that’s not Our American Cousin on the stage. It brings to mind something Paul Schrader, of Taxi Driver fame, said. People would rather be confused than bored with films. Nowhere is this more true than where the entire audience knows that Lincoln is going to be shot as a matter of historical fact. Like Shakespeare’s Duncan Lincoln is killed off stage/ off screen and we are forced to deal with the effect his shooting has on his son and others rather than on the pure violence of the act. The choice of including Lincoln’s speech at the end after a fancy effect with a flame seems a little hackneyed. Following Hendrik Herbert analysis the final ‘awkward scenes have a Disneylandish, audio-automation, theme-park air about them.’
There are a few more interesting things about the assassination which I feel like mentioning anyway. The Ford Theatre eventually became a place for storing government documents until the weight of documents caused a collapse that killed a lot of people. Also when Lincoln was being assassinated someone tried to carve him up but a wire stopped the knife and saved him. The men in the household to my knowledge got better despite being knifed whereas at least one of the women went into decline and died afterwards. This is based on my rough remembering of team of rivals.
Character traits of Lincoln, Leadership and some elements of broader historical context
The film tries to bring home the point again and again that though he is surrounded by people Lincoln his utterly alone.The lighting is often dark and Lincoln’s face often shrouded in darkness. We mostly inhabit darkened rooms with fireplaces and mirrors. The shots around the fireplace cause me to have a reverie involving another leader Napoleon. Frank McLynn’s biography of Napoleon suggests that [a]nother Bonaparte peculiarity was an insistence on always having a fire lit, Winter or Summer.
Forever complaining of the cold, he would kick the blazing logs while he talked.’ The fire suggests to me the unceasing movement and energy that both leaders required. A sense of going somewhere and of satisfying some drive or political ambition. In the case of Lincoln even his stories from which he derives great pleasure and comfort are used to masterful political effect. In the few hours where he does actually sleep his dreams inform his decisions. One of which (dreams) we actually see depicted in the film. The dream again his concerned with solitary movement at great speed.
Following the comparison with Napoleon we find that Napoleon would not rise later than 3am. He would mull ‘ over the most urgent affairs of state, he would take one of his famous boiling hot baths, then go back to bed at 5am for an hour.’ What Napoleon described as ‘his after midnight presence of mind’ seem to connect with Lincoln as well. In the film we see him at 3:40 am in the morning deciding whether to pardon a 16 year old boy. Finally, another part of the treatment of Napoleon seems to connect with Lincoln and his treatment in this film. McLynn says that some people suggest that Napoleon was a ‘dual man’, in a unique sense, that he was a man who lived in space and time and who observed the ‘other self’ doing so many remarkable things, that, to put it another way, he lived on an equal footing with his own destiny. That the filming choices (especially those of depicting his dream and making him a second hand witness to his own speeches) lead me into a reverie of Napoleon and Lincoln’s character traits suggests to me that the response to this film will be different for every person. In a certain sense I am still watching Lincoln and my review is to a large view informed by a whole range of other materials. This is a thinking man’s film. A film for people who know what it is to think like a lawyer or a politician.
And overall it is a film that concerns itself with authenticity. Even Hendrik Hertzberg in criticizing the film is forced to row back in a criticism of its authenticity.And overall it is a film that concerns itself with authenticity. Even Hendrik Hertzberg in criticizing the film is forced to row back in a criticism of its authenticity. In talking about the assassination of Lincoln in the film he suggests that the film his outrageous in its depiction of Tad going to the theatre alone. He asks with incredulity ‘wouldn’t the manager, knowing the President’s young son was in the house, have had the lad escorted out before making such an announcement?’ Later he has to go back and change his tune. To save face he has to say that the manager announced but only after the rumour had circulated the theatre.
The political necessity of lying
The main message in the film for me relates to the political necessity of lying. The case that Lincoln puts to the Confederate delegates is that idea of democracy should sustain them and that it is something to which they can aspire one day. The film in in a sense about lying, or at the very least bending the truth, to reach a morally superior position. I think the film also speaks to a legal obsession with form. Lincoln seems obsessed with a form of truth that is in fact lying. In the climactic scene where voting takes place on the 13th amendment to the Constitution Lincoln tells a whopper of a lie with the truth. In what is described as a ‘lawyer’s dodge’ Lincoln gives the House to believe that there is no Confederate peace delegation by suggesting that as far as he knows there will be no delegation coming to Washington nor does he believe there will be. This is the truth but it is also a lie.
Thaddeus Stephens, the leader of the house played by Tommy Lee Jones, must egregiously misrepresent his views and denounce his views relating to racial equality in favour of mere equality before the law. Lincoln gives his cabinet a lengthy explanation of the different legal forms that he will use to abolish slavery. Considering slaves property, not considering them property, considering the succession states a different nation and considering them not a different nation. I think the film is about both Lincoln’s and its obsession with these forms. Everyone is so tied up with process and form. This obsession with form goes so far that Lincoln the master of this lawyerly form entreats the members of his cabinet to focus on the ‘Here-and-Now’. ( Now after having only recently read four of Yalom’s books I found this particularly gripping. Lincoln was probably not referring to the symbolic importance of actions within the therapeutic relationship and hour but the entreaty was all the more effective for me because that phrase was used.) So the film is about lying and form over substance but also paradoxically about seeing through form to substance.