LARSON: Lincoln’s greatness

Nothing in Particular

It was enchanting. From the moment you first see him, you cease to think of makeup or Oscars or clumsy writing or how an actor could simultaneously be eloquent and have the scratchy, decidedly unrhetorical voice historians say Lincoln had.

Instead, Daniel Day Lewis became — or already was — Lincoln. I didn’t think about how good or accurate a job Lewis was doing, as thinking to ask such a question implies an ability to separate actor and role that, in this case, I lacked.

Some will inevitably disagree with my take on Lewis’ performance, but several — including the actor — seem to have had a similar experience.

What’s remarkable wasn’t just Lewis’ acting. Rather, in so correctly and impossibly embodying popular conceptions of our 16th president, Lewis proved just how strong our sense is of who Lincoln really was.

Some of this reflects the simple incorporation of our historical awareness into the film; we’ve all read Lincoln’s words. We already knew that he liked to tell stories, sometimes to illustrate his arguments through metaphor and sometimes just to amuse. We knew his relationship with his wife to have been tense. We knew that he was a canny politician, dealing less in the absolute morality of Tommy Lee Jones’ excellent Thaddeus Stevens than in the art of the possible: steadily and surely finding ways to advance what he knew to be right.

But  He was brilliant and simple, magnanimous and practical, somehow able to write the finest words without ever being self-aggrandizing or condescending.

Lewis’ Lincoln could speak easily with the limbless soldiers he had ordered to war, but he spoke just as easily with rival statesmen. And while he perfectly tailored his words to each situation, he never altered his bearing or manner of speaking based on who he was talking to. And in those very rare instances where Lewis’ Lincoln lost for a moment his self-control, he seemed to become, if anything, more commanding and more righteous, as if pouring forth some sort of divine fury.

Normally in a film about some great figure, there is a tendency to humanize. We start with a flawed character with whom we can empathize and in whose shoes we can imagine ourselves. Gradually, he or she becomes something more, but often that transformation is sparked not just by a unique mind or character, but also by circumstance. Such stories allow any of us to imagine ourselves as a Shakespeare, Churchill, Elizabeth or even Moses.

But for whatever reason, the Lincoln we carry around with us in our imagination is above such conventional character development. We forget entirely what he was like before he was great or how he became great, and we don’t put limits or qualifiers onto his greatness, even though we know of mistaken decisions he made (Cold Harbor, General McClellan) or mistaken beliefs (sending freed slaves back to Africa) that he at one time held. Spielberg dodges this problem by starting his film late into Lincoln’s presidency. We definitely don’t imagine ourselves in his shoes.

I’ve read that Lincoln once argued against the notion that Americans of his time excessively idealized George Washington. Even if they imagined him to have been impossibly perfect, the belief of such human perfection could inspire us to greatness in a way that more relatable figures can’t.

I’m not sure if I buy this. After all, we usually tune out holier-than-thou voices, which often do more to push us away from doing what we know to be right than people who actually invite us to do wrong. But perhaps the peculiar quality that Lincoln saw in Washington — and that we see in Lincoln — is a greatness so humble and unassuming that we can’t resent or envy it.

Here at Yale, we have our fair share of ambition. Many of us want to be president, and most of us want to be great. But from the screen, Daniel Day Lewis and Abraham Lincoln somehow chastise and inspire us: showing us what we can’t do, while making us want to do what we can.

 

Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu .

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