Robert Elder: Remembering Lincoln

tags: Abraham Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert Elder, The Cresset



Robert Elder is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.

The first time that Abraham Lincoln appears on the screen in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, he is sitting on a bench under a canopy in a rainstorm with his famous stove-pipe hat sitting beside him. Sitting in a darkened theater, I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as he appeared. I felt a little as if I had encountered a long-dead relative, the memory of whose physical presence lay housed deep in my mind, nearly forgotten, until now. The feeling owed little to Daniel Day-Lewis’s overwhelming performance as our sixteenth president, which really had yet to begin, or to Spielberg’s attention to historical detail, a trait that, while appreciated by historians such as myself, rarely raises the hair on the back of my neck no matter how expertly executed. Instead, I think the feeling happened because of how the Civil War and its characters, Lincoln in particular, occupy the same mental territory in the American mind as the quasi-religious construct of the nation itself. They prompt the same subterranean responses elicited by symbols of the nation such as the flag. Robert Penn Warren once wrote that the Civil War is not only the “great single event” of American history, but that “it may, in fact, be said to be American history.” The war, Warren famously wrote, is our only “felt” history. This is one of the reasons that the film Spielberg and Day-Lewis have so lovingly and carefully crafted is so powerful, and yet as we sit in the darkened theater we must recognize that we have left the realm of history, strictly understood, behind, and entered the deep and murky pool of memory.

Most responses to Spielberg’s masterpiece from historians have focused on the extent to which it gets the history right or wrong. There is a lot to like about the film in this regard, most of it revolving around Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. From his squeaky tenor voice to his plodding, springless gait, there is ample evidence that Day-Lewis did the research on his subject; these characteristics are drawn directly from contemporary descriptions of Honest Abe. In one scene, the film’s passion for historical detail even extends to the ticking sound of a watch, which Spielberg reportedly captured by recording a watch once carried by Lincoln. My own favorite part of the marriage between Tony Kushner’s script and Day-Lewis’s portrayal was the way Lincoln often broke into extended stories to make a point, a trait of Lincoln’s that contemporary observers sometimes recorded with frustration. In addition, several of the casting decisions in the film are inspired, particularly David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward (the physical resemblance between Strathairn and Seward is uncanny) and James Spader as the wheeling and dealing W. N. Bilbo, a character based on a Tennessee lawyer who helped lobby for the Thirteenth Amendment and who serves in the film as the embodiment of the era’s horse-trading style of politics. In particular, historians have applauded Spielberg’s recreation of Lincoln’s political style, which mixed a fierce pursuit of ultimate goals with a remarkable flexibility and awareness of the limits and possibilities of the political moment. 




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