I’m trying to think about how Lincoln treats its central character. There may be nothing spectacular to the depiction of Abraham Lincoln, but this story isn’t really about him so much as the issue of slavery that he fought so hard to abolish. Well, it’s not even so much about slavery as it is the divide in the country during the Civil War. If this film were more about slavery, then we’d see the horrors of slavery (like in 1997’s Amistad), but we don’t. And we aren’t filled in on all of Lincoln’s backstory. Instead we meet him in a particularly crucial moment in his presidency and in America’s history. So the opening image of the brutal, physical combat in the Civil War is important, because it sets the stage for a country at war with itself.
Lincoln wants to end slavery, and he leads there fight to get enough votes in the House of Representatives to do so. There is no clear change in Lincoln’s character. When we meet him he wants to pass the 13th Amendment, and in the end the amendment passes. The real growth within the story is from the people who are firmly against this amendment but switch their vote in the end. There is so much anger, hatred and arguing amongst politicians in this story, and it feels like the further into this debate they go, the more we’re just digging into an open wound.
There is a tangible and strategic connection between the war and the fight to end slavery beyond the ideologies of the two warring sides. Lincoln knows that some people are in favor of abolishing slavery as a means to the end of the Civil War. So when there is an offer of a peace treaty, Lincoln has to consider it even though the end of the war might mean slavery continues. In other words, this is just a complicated fight. Like any political decision, it’s… political. A lot of things, like the end to slavery, feel inevitable in hindsight (same with women’s right to vote, legalization of interracial and same sex marriage, etc.), but at the time the battle is hard-fought and has greater consequences and implications. One character tells the President that he would love to end slavery, but he just doesn’t think the country is ready for it.
So really, this film shows an America that is experiencing some real growing pains. There isn’t much hope within this film in terms of how people behave towards each other. There’s fighting and name-calling, and the whole thing feels like some sort of rap battle with the “oohs” and “aahs” but no real progress being made. Amidst all that is the steady hand of President Lincoln. He seems to be above it all. Where others yell, he nearly whispers. His voice is so soft that sometimes you have to lean forward to hear it. He has a story for everything, as if making sure you know he’s experienced and wise with a reason for everything he does. In other words, Lincoln is God.
He never participates in the fight, just tries to push people in the right direction. Sure, people bring the fight to him, but he’s always separate from the scrum and the fighting below. Very early in the film, after we see the brutal shots of fighting in the war, we see Abe Lincoln himself sitting amongst the Northern soldiers, listening to them. He’s observing the physical fighting in the same way he’s forced to observed the political dogfight.
I think the image of Lincoln as God is aided by what we know. Of course, slavery was abolished, and there’s no one in the audience who’s not satisfied with that. We watch this story, and we want to see Lincoln win. We know he wins, so we have this omniscient perspective of what’s happening. It creates this atmosphere in which everything the good guys do is good, and everything the bad guys do is bad. The opponents to the 13th Amendment always feel a little silly because though they’re not aware of it, we can see them fading into oblivion, on the wrong side of history.
So what does this mean for our viewing experience? The story is more informative about the process of growth than the growth itself. Since we know how the film ends, the mystery is how they get to that ending. What’s illuminating is just how messy change is. So much of this story is applicable to modern day politics or at least the perception of what goes on in Washington.
The film celebrates Abe Lincoln, and it tries to humanize him in a couple scenes in order to make sure you know how great he was. It’s more important, I think, to see him as a real person capable of leading this progress rather than as a larger than life figure who was meant to lead this change. The abolishment of slavery was never a sure thing, and he had to calmly put everything in place for it to end.
This is where I feel like I’m out of my element. I’m not well-versed in politics or even the politics of this film. I fee like I missed a lot, somehow, because so much of the film was one conversation after another. I can only discuss my takeaways and the feelings created by each scene.
Each scene in this film felt like a miniature battle, and in that way this entire film was the Civil War. We just see battle after battle, moving the pieces around the board. Like Mary Todd Lincoln calculated the vote during the actual vote, we’re keeping a mental tally of who’s voting which way. The film makes it clear that Walton Goggins’ character, initially against passing the amendment, is having second thoughts. So we monitor his character’s thought process like a general presiding over a particular battle, knowing that should they win there, they will have an easier time cutting off supply lines and winning the war.
In other words, so much of this film is purely oppositional. It’s one person versus another. Each person reflects a particular ideology, and each individual battle suddenly becomes magnified, representing an entire country’s struggle.
The film ends with Lincoln’s death, but we don’t see his assassination. Instead we’re in the audience, literally, as the camera sits among a theater crowd when a man proclaims that the President has been shot. The first time we saw President Lincoln was from behind him, as we watch a Northern soldier discuss his military experience with the President. In that moment we see the President the way the soldier or anyone else does, as this larger than life figure, looming overhead silently and powerfully. This idea is reinforced as Dane DeHaan, playing another soldier, asks Lincoln how tall he really is. It’s like a kid meeting his favorite athlete.
So then the film transitions into the more human side of the President, allowing us to see him in some of his most intimate moments with family. Then at the end, we’re suddenly thrown back outside, viewing the President like the rest of the world, receiving word of his death like many of them did as opposed to seeing it first hand.
A few remaining thoughts… this film is beautiful, but it’s also a bit grim, visually. There are a lot of shadows, a lot of contrast, and the film is smothered in cold tones. It started to feel like the entire film was shot in and around Winterfell (Game of Thrones). It paints a picture of a cold winter and feelings of dread. Really, it just reflects the struggle going on at that time. This wasn’t a joyous moment in history, with the war raging on and slavery still in the air. It also doesn’t hurt that these cold color temperatures seamlessly incorporate the blues and grays of the uniforms of both the North and the South. Blue and gray dominates the visual landscape.
Near the end of the film we see Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln riding along in a carriage after the 13th Amendment has been passed. It’s a rare moment of serenity as the fight had ended. To make it clear that there has been a victory, the film is smothered in warm tones, making you feel like you’re riding off into the setting sun. The scene is made more joyous, partially to heighten the dramatic arc because almost right after we get the news that Lincoln has been shot. It’s a moment of peace for a peaceful man who’s made to seem tortured on the inside and strangled on the outside by the politicians around him.
So last of all, I think it’s important that we start and end with President Lincoln as a figure outside of us, basically as an icon rather than a human being. Lincoln is mostly the same guy throughout the story, and he only changes depending on what lens you see him through. Like any polarizing public figure (particularly a President), you mostly love or hate him. To some (and today, most) people, he’s a hero, but to others he represents a threat to their entire livelihood. So Abe Lincoln becomes this blank slate onto which you project your fears and hopes. Lincoln, then, isn’t about the President so much, but about a young nation tearing itself apart and in need of healing. In life, President Lincoln was just a guy, one many hated, but in death he became a symbol of hope. The film makes it seem as though he became that symbol fairly quickly, though I’m guessing it took more time to pass before he became so widely adored. Either way, his death, coupled with the victorious passing of the 13th Amendment, allowed Spielberg to offer up another one of those inspiring and optimistic endings that he loves so much. In this case it makes sense considering what was achieved in this film (and in history) and the sacrifice it cost the President.