“The greatest measure of the century, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
That’s how Congressman Thaddeus Stevens described the 13th Amendment at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film “Lincoln.”
The movie presents the weeks leading up to the vote in the House of Representatives to abolish slavery. President Lincoln has won re-election. The Civil War has raged with devastation for four years. Peace and messy reconstruction loom as a way of life disintegrates for three groups of people: the enslaved, the slave owners and their neighbors.
The politics necessary to achieve the move from a country that sanctioned people owning other people, to one that does not, was wrought with compromise, including bribery and rhetorical contortion. At the center of the politics is a person whose familiar stature and words bear the weight of history and hero worship.
Lincoln is known to us for his accomplishments, his tragedies and his look. His leadership changed the course of human events; he and his wife lost two young sons to sickness; he was tall, bearded and wore a distinctive hat. And, of course, he was shot to death attending a play. Spielberg’s picture gives us all of these, embodying a superficially familiar figure in Daniel Day-Lewis’ meticulous action. His Lincoln becomes human, albeit still enigmatic, through his voice, frame and particularly his hands, so that when Day-Lewis speaks and moves, we feel Lincoln’s passion and frailty.
We hear the voice before we see the body of the speaker: “What’s your name, soldier?” It’s a little raspy, maybe higher-pitched than we’d expect. Lincoln sits on a small platform as soldiers gather before him, and he jokes. It’s awkward and endearing, for the other characters on screen, and for us. This is a man too big, too important, to fit with casual jokes and stories. Soldiers, and we, have memorized a speech he gave and they recite it back to him: Four score and seven years ago ...
In an early scene, Mary Lincoln self-deprecatingly asks, “Who wants to listen to a woman grouse?” and in her mirror we see a husband’s hand rise sweetly. “I do,” he volunteers. Lincoln works with his hands in a tense cabinet meeting, sharpening a pencil with a knife; he puts his hands on colleagues’ shoulders, to make a point, lend emotional support or sometimes, it seems, just to be in touch. He takes the hand of the secretary of war as they receive battle news; he ruffles his personal secretary’s hair and later holds his hand to keep him from delaying a controversial note. Lincoln pounds his fist on a table as he demands his fellow politicians see his vision through. There’s even a running bit with a pair of gloves that Mrs. Lincoln and the president’s valet are always urging him to wear, but he wants to leave off.
Not just Lincoln’s hands humanize. Comforting his wife in their shared lingering grief, he takes her hands and kisses them. When their son Robert sees the horrors of war — severed limbs in an open grave — his hands shake so badly he can’t roll a cigarette. Shortly afterward, Bob provokes his father, and Lincoln slaps his son, then remorsefully takes Bob’s face in his hands.
It’s a lonely thing to be the imperfect, mythologized man whose leadership and consequences have such great and terrible weight. Spielberg’s Lincoln is, he confesses, “very keenly aware of my aloneness.” No one is loved as much as he is, Mary says. She begs him not to waste that power on an amendment that is sure to be defeated.
Therein lies the bind. The fate of human dignity, Lincoln says, is in our hands, but the enactment of that dignity depends on bending and appeasement from beginning to the continuing end in which we now live. The very act of war came out of a rhetorical and legal conundrum. Lincoln called fellow humans property in order to maneuver their ultimate freedom. Stevens laments that the inner moral compass of the American people ossified through participation in slavery, and Lincoln notes that a compass is little help in a swampland. Politically, to change so deeply human perception and relations looks like holding hands with falsehood and selfish impulse.
The movie itself mirrors its theme of compromise. Spielberg’s filmmaking and the script’s drama are conventional to a fault. Music swells perceptibly at all the right moments, sequences transition through traditional crossfades, and there’s even a chase scene at a climactic point. What we get through Day-Lewis’ intimate performance feels like a real, live human in a very well-made movie.
Still, compromise should be unsettling. This smart, endearing, successful Lincoln almost absolves us of our responsibility to wrestle with the ethical and practical implications of his story. But his physical intimacy and rhetorical complexity do not allow us to experience Lincoln as pure, solid greatness, nor to divorce ourselves from recognizing our own remaining political failures in humaneness and justice, even while the surrounding film aesthetics do feel like a marble memorial.
And so, awkward but hopeful questions of progress through compromise linger. “I can’t be you,” Robert Lincoln tells his father, “But I won’t be nothing.”
Rini Cobbey is an associate professor and chairwoman of communication arts at Gordon College in Wenham. She lives in Lynn.