Director Steven Spielberg held back the release of Lincoln, his new film biography of the 16th president of the United States, until three days after Tuesday’s presidential election. The approach manages to capitalize on election fever while avoiding a backlash against perceived political interference. In a highly partisan election year, when talk-show host Rush Limbaugh claimed that Bain, the crazed, sadistic villain of The Dark Knight Rises, was named after Mitt Romney’s finance company Bain Capital, you can’t be too careful.
Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis and is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography, is a historical drama focusing on the last four months of the Civil War president’s life, specifically his political battle to pass the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing slavery. Though reviews have been embargoed until its Nov. 9 release, I can say this much: Coming from a director known for naive sentiment and action, it’s a surprisingly political film. Not “political” in the Michael Moore ideological sense, but a behind-closed-doors study of the process of politics, the grubby business of whipping up support, currying favours and finding solutions that may not be best, but are best under the circumstances.
The abolition of slavery is no longer a controversial issue. So who benefits from a new biography of a president claimed by both Democrats and Republicans as a hero? At the recent press junket for Lincoln, Spielberg insisted the current film had “nothing to do with the current politics. It has nothing to do with holding a mirror up to the way we conduct our business on Capitol Hill today.”
Really, we know better. A film about Abraham Lincoln today is a film about Barack Obama. Both Obama’s supporters and deriders have pointed out the obvious parallels between Obama and the sainted 16th president. Both came from humble means, both adopted Illinois as their homes and served eight years in the Illinois legislature. Both were tall and skinny, eloquent orators with limited Washington experience before declaring their candidacy for President. Most important, their successes were milestones in the slow progress away from Americans’ racist history.
Obama has embraced the comparisons. He launched his long-shot bid for the presidency from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. – the same place where a century and a half earlier, Lincoln delivered his historic “House Divided” speech.
Weeks after winning the 2008 election, he told 60 Minutes he had been reading about Lincoln again: “There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was President, that I just find very helpful.” That was also around the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, an event Obama characterized as “humbling for me in particular because it’s fair to say that the presidency of this singular figure, who we celebrate in so many ways, made my own story possible.” In lighter moments he has complained: “Lincoln, they used to talk about him almost as bad as they talk about me.”
Whatever Spielberg has said about his new film, we also know that the director is unequivocally an Obama man. Both he and his DreamWorks colleague, Jeffrey Katzenberg, gave $1-million each of the more than $15-million Obama’s Super PAC raised in September. And screenwriter Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist (Angels in America), has been far less shy about drawing the lines between the two presidents. He spent six years on the script, based on Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the same six years that saw the ascendancy and first term of Barack Obama.
“I’ve watched the Obama presidency through the lens of looking at Lincoln. And it’s given me a very deep conviction that Barack Obama is a great President,” Kushner said at a PEN benefit last May. “He’s done an astonishing job.”
He also talked about a central subject of Lincoln, which is the art of political compromise: “… Exercising power in democracy is a series of bone-bending, soul-tormenting compromises of the most horrendous kind. And swallowing the stuff that no one would ever really want to swallow. There’s nothing pure about it.”
In a recent Time magazine interview, he added: “Nothing is as desperate as the Civil War that Lincoln stepped into, but the mess that Obama inherited from the previous administration is as great as anything an American president other than Lincoln has faced.”
What Kushner hasn’t said, but what is implicit, is that he also saw Lincoln through the lens of the Obama presidency. The angry arguments about religion, abortion, gay rights and the rightful role of government are a distant echo of the crime of slavery, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t draw direct parallels to the American Civil War. But it’s not difficult to find an analogy between Lincoln’s finessing of the anti-slavery proposition with the kind of political machinations Obama employed to squeak through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the biggest reform in American health care in half a century, which Vice-President Joe Biden rightfully called “a big fucking deal”). Of course, the USA is a different country today. The 40 million Americans without health insurance before the 2010 law were five million more than the entire U.S. population in 1865, when slavery was outlawed.
One area where Obama fails to measure up is in his story-telling talents. Lincoln told a great one. As David Herbert Donald’s 1996 biography tells it, the now mythic story of Lincoln’s childhood poverty was shaped by the Republican platform of 1860, which sold him as “the embodiment of the self-made man, the representative of free labour and the spokesman of the Great West.” Little did it matter that Lincoln was a successful corporate lawyer who had little time for his pioneer roots and owed much of his success to powerful friends. He created a great story that has persisted, often through the mythology sustained by the movies.
Obama, in contrast, has not sold his story nearly as well. A recent New York Times piece by Matt Bai, titled Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief, focused precisely on that weakness. Obama admitted as much to Charlie Rose in an interview last summer, noting that politics isn’t just about getting things done, but telling “a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.” On that front, he has come up short.
Lincoln can be seen as Spielberg and Kushner’s prediction of a second Obama term – and a way of helping the President fill that gap.
ABE LINCOLN ON THE SILVER SCREEN
Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in film and television an estimated 300 times, including movies depicting him as a vampire and zombie hunter, or, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, uttering the immortal words “Party on, dudes!” During the 1930s, Lincoln was particularly popular in a cycle of films which critic Andrew Sarris referred to as the “obsessive reincarnation” of the martyred President.
Here are four of the most influential depictions of Lincoln on screen.
Abraham Lincoln (1930)
Inspired by Carl Sandburg’s biography and directed by D.W. Griffiths, this stars Toronto-born actor Walter Huston, founder of the family acting dynasty, as a hulkingly physical President who can out-muscle as well as out-debate his opponents. His two most famous speeches, the Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address, are conflated into one speech, delivered in the Ford Theatre moments before his assassination.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Starring Henry Fonda in a prosthetic nose as the folksy young lawyer using his wit and charm to win a legal case, this is both down-home and richly mythical. It begins with a poem addressed to the ghost of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, a distant relative of actor Tom Hanks. It ends with Lincoln ascending a Calvary-like hill, marked with fence rails in the shape of a cross.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
Another Canadian, Raymond Massey, starred in this adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer-winning play, directed by John Cromwell. It chronicles Lincoln’s life from his arrival in Illinois to his election as President, with a focus on his relationship with Ann Rutledge and later Mary Todd. Massey, who more or less defined the image of Lincoln as a warm but reserved man and sharp orator, got an Oscar nomination for his work.
Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)
The first-ever television miniseries in 1974 was Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln, starring Hal Holbrook (who also has a part in Spielberg’s film). This four-part account, in 1988, was based on Vidal’s 1984 historical novel, and was intended as a revisionist corrective, starring Sam Waterston. Like most Lincoln actors, Waterston has never completely shaken the character.