Last Saturday night I went to see Lincoln with my father and my sister. I happened to be in the town where I grew up, in Kentucky (a state featured in the film), sitting with a lawyer history buff on my right, and a fellow Youth In Government debater on my left. I was ready for Spielberg, Kushner, Williams and too many excellent actors to name, to impress me.
I did come out of the film impressed, but not primarily due to the more technical aspects of the film. I was not gushing over the cinematography or the use of color as I often do (obligatory Skyfall shout out). Not because the cinematography, color, or any other technical aspects were bad. Those aspects were, however stirring and effective, not at the foundation of the films impression on me. There were several wonderful moments of cinematography and lighting that impressed me, such as when Abe is distanced from us by a translucent white curtain, sun streaming in the window. We see his profile and he becomes ethereal.
I was also impressed by Tommy Lee Jones performance as the gruff, curt, gentleman from Pennsylvania and leader of the abolitionist Republican faction, Thaddeus Stevens. Watching him tear down arrogant congressmen and terrify new congressmen made me cheer and reduced me to giggles. His trenchant retorts are perfectly delivered and will make the film bearable for even the most uninterested school children of the future who will no doubt watch this in American History classes throughout the U.S.
My favorite scene was one of these ethereal Abe moments, when he hears the bells begin to ring, signaling the passage of the amendment. It was beautifully understated. The growing chorus of bells has broken the tense silence, signaling freedom for everyone, including Abe.
If there were one technical aspect on which I would call Spielberg out, it would be the slow pan into Lincoln’s face as he tells a poignant story that is both funny and touching. Yes, it was effective. Even after the fifth or sixth time. Some characters in the film are annoyed by his constant, slow drawl telling of stories that initially seem completely unrelated to whatever crisis is at hand, but are ultimately (of course) a metaphor for how Lincoln should (and will) act. I found his stories poignant and clever, but if your film is going to be two and a half hours long you want to make it feel like an hour and a half, not run the risk of making it feel longer by using identically filmed sequences.
As I was walking out of the theater however, I wasn’t really thinking of all these technical details. I was realizing that Lincoln is reshaping essential American mythology. The founding fathers have become commonly thought of as wise, benevolent, practically omniscient beings. They might have been men in 1776, but they are not men to us. They are supermen. They created this grand county and all its grand ideals–Ideals which were almost grand enough to get rid of slavery.
A.O. Scott of the New York Times put it well, saying Lincoln was “devoted to plotting the intersection of intimate stories and mythical narratives, and to discovering moments when the ordinary crosses paths with the sublime.” One the one hand, there are the glorious scenes of light streaming through windows that immortalize Lincoln. A minute later we get the slow pan on the story teller who just seems like a nice guy, a man with a strong moral conscience. What Lincoln is accomplishing by having both superman Lincoln and human Lincoln is a critical aspect of maintaining a current cultural ideal of Lincoln and shaping that ideal into a modern day American mythology. The film is allowing the current public ideal of Lincoln to reside in the same mythological sphere as that of the founding fathers (they have yet to be debunked from their throne). He can be as wise, benevolent, and as practically omniscient as Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, or any of the others. Yet the film also shows us how very human he is.
What Lincoln impressed upon me was Lincoln’s humanity at a time when the world for the people of the United States was a most inhumane place. He was not superman. He was beloved, yes, but breathing and living and dying were just as hard for him as anyone. We love seeing Lincoln as a great man, not an untouchable being, because we love that as a man, he is like us.
I left Lincoln with a feeling of nostalgia. This is most directly due to the end speech, Lincoln’s second inaugural, which though inspiring and hopeful, does seem out of place because [SPOILERS] he just died. “Wait, what…who is that?” my sister asked, confused. I don’t care if Spielberg manipulated that nostalgia out of me or if the film was historically inaccurate in some ways. America is creating her own mythology through film, from superheroes to historical figures. They are all being created as American heroes. Even if they have special talents, abilities, or powers, when it comes down to it they are still only human, just like us. But, they are the best version of us, the ones that fight for justice and what is right. And that is what we love most about them. We love to believe that if they can do it, so can we.