Lincoln and “Lincoln”

by Scott Stern

I was that guy — or, at least, I wanted to be. In the theater. After the movie. The one who walked out going, “They all looked so accurate. Especially Edwin Stanton! And Salmon P. Chase. And did you notice how Lincoln’s body was slanted at the very end? That’s historically accurate!”

Last year, I took a class called “Lincoln in Thought and Action.” I went into the class a Lincoln skeptic. This was the man, after all, who suspended habeas corpus, who was a moderate on slavery, who announced his willingness to accept slavery so long as it didn’t spread. I finished the course, as did, I believe, every single one of my classmates, a Lincoln believer.

I have a friend who told me I had a “Lincoln fetish,” because I talked about Lincoln so much at lunch. And breakfast. And dinner. And parties.

For “Lincoln in Thought and Action,” I purchased two handsome, blue volumes of Lincoln’s speeches and writings. For the next several months, my classmates and I delved into Abe’s oratory, discussing, analyzing, arguing. My interpretations — pretentious and dilettante-ish — rarely held water. But every now and then, I struck gold.

Fast-forward one year. I am sitting with nine of my former classmates, watching the man, the legend, on screen. Our professor is with us. We are there to see “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s latest instant-classic, a film so well-cast and well-done that it has the Academy drooling Oscar juice already.

The film doesn’t end well for its title character. But in a blurry sort of flashback, at the end, we see Lincoln giving a rousing speech in his weirdly high and whiny voice. (Also historically accurate!) “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” I mouth along. It’s Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, usually grouped among his best speeches. My pride in the man cannot match my pride in my memory.

Alas, I am losing my Lincoln knowledge. I have attempted to rejuvenate it with supplemental readings like “Manhunt” and “The Fiery Trial” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s epic and epically long “Team of Rivals.” But I am losing my knowledge all the same. Never again will I know quite so much about an American president.

For our final in “Lincoln and Thought and Action,” we were given a list of numerous, semi-obscure Lincoln quotes, and we had to name the year, the speech, and the context. Take a dozen or so quotes, divide them by the hundreds or thousands of pages of Lincoln we read, and you’ll begin to understand the spike in my blood pressure. Never before (and never again) will I spend quite so much time studying for a test worth, I believe, 15 percent of my final grade.

But it was worth it.

For instance, I can tell you that “Lincoln” the movie gets some things wrong — a few of them major. Lincoln was not nearly as dictatorial as he is portrayed to be. A number of the film’s premises are predicated on historical possibilities, not historical fact.

Still, the movie was excellent. The class was excellent. And Lincoln remains — to me, and my classmates and Tony Kushner — transcendent. For his entire life, he harbored an abiding revulsion of slavery. Slavery, and indifference to slavery, were among the only things he ever truly loathed. It was discussing slavery and its spread that Lincoln used the word “hate,” one of very, very few times in a long political career that he did so. About indifference or “covert, real zeal for the spread of slavery,” Lincoln said, “I cannot but hate.” He was not a religious man, but he hated slavery with a righteous passion. He could not but hate it. It was not a choice.

Lincoln was not perfect, nor does “Lincoln” portray him to be perfect. But it seems to me that he was as close as we’ll ever get. Lincoln qualified his opinion on slavery in public, until, after decades of work and a Union victory to soften the blow, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” tells the next chapter of the story — the passage of a constitutional amendment banning slavery once and for all.

At dinner after the film, one of my former classmates asked our former professor, why so much hullabaloo about a former president? My professor responded with a number of reasons: we’re now in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and, soon, Lincoln’s assassination. We’re now in the middle of the presidency of Barack Obama, a man frequently likened to Lincoln (aided by Obama’s own notions of himself).

I agreed. But it’s more than that. Lincoln is relevant to any time, any age. His popularity will come in swings, but it will never truly go. It can’t. I have a notebook full of class notes and a ticket stub to prove it.

Our Man of Illinois (or, Saint Abe of the Prairie State): A Review of “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)

by Patrice Bowman

Historical figures never fail to interest us common folk. When these famous people come alive on the movie screen, we can experience their moments of greatness (and not-so-greatness) for ourselves. So it makes sense that in the right director’s hands, Abraham Lincoln’s life can be depicted with a balance of heroism and frailty that awes viewers. It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has twelve Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

But before Spielberg, another prolific director portrayed Lincoln’s life — and, no, I’m not talking about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012), because that shouldn’t have been a thing. D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln” (1930), like Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” ostensibly divides its time between some of the historical facts and what Lincoln symbolized: freedom, unity and honesty. But Griffith is so devoted to Lincoln the Symbol — even more so than Spielberg — that he doesn’t show the more engaging Lincoln the Human.

The episodic structure covers many parts of Abraham Lincoln’s (Walter Huston) life, going through his time as a shop-keeper, career as a lawyer, marriage to Mary Todd (Kay Hammond), his debates with Stephen A. Douglas (E. Alyn Warren), his presidency, the Civil War and his death. The staccato storytelling strips the entire cast, except the Lincolns, down to their barest functions in the plot. Hammond’s Mrs. Lincoln is a shrew when she should’ve been a more complicated woman. Huston is a decent Lincoln. He looks the part and speaks in an authoritative tone, which I missed in Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal; however, Huston awkwardly plops portions of Lincoln’s speeches into normal conversation. His interpretation, unlike Day-Lewis’s, is stiffly hagiographic for the most part.

I could blame the stagnant feel on the 1930s film industry’s transition from silent to sound, because the new equipment impeded the fluid movement of cameras and of actors. Sound or no sound, though, Griffith’s grasp on narrative rhythm is shakier than Hammond’s Southern accent. Lincoln’s development into a wise man is a bombardment, not a flow, of events.

Another issue is that, as Spielberg does in his “Lincoln,” Griffith ignores slavery’s horrors and pushes Blacks to the sidelines. The former ignores all of the efforts of African-Americans to abolish slavery, but the latter rarely shows them at all. Considering the buffoonery and brutishness connected to onscreen Blacks (both real and “Black-face” ones) in his legendary “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), I suppose he thought the safest option was to not take any chances.

Yet even with this precaution and the prestige of the subject, the film didn’t see huge success in the ’30s. If both films portray the same figure and share similar issues, why was Spielberg’s version received better than Griffith’s? Let’s start at the states of the filmmakers’ careers when they made the biopics. Spielberg had directed two successful films (“The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse”) in the same year that he released “Lincoln” and was at a directorial high-point. On the other hand, after “The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith’s subsequent works didn’t consistently earn him financial or critical success. He was, until his death, in something of a rut.

And apart from career highs and lows, Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the better film. It benefits from tighter narrative focus and technique—not just from advanced technology, but from a better acknowledgement of the cinematic ideas Griffith himself helped set up with “Birth of a Nation.” True, Spielberg has his moments of sentimentality. And he still portrays Lincoln as the “Great White Savior of the Slaves” when, historically, the real man was less ideal. But there’s still some moral ambiguity within “Lincoln.” With Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln,” there’s too much melodrama and not enough, well, drama.