The mesmerising quality of Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln" reviewed.

No one who watches American movies regularly is ever likely to bemoan a lack of father/son stories. At times it can seem that the entire industry is run by studio executives greenlighting films about men who are torn, as they are, between their careers and their sons’ little league games. The nadir of this psychotherapy-as-cinema sub-genre was surely Field of Dreams, the 1989 Y-chromosome weepie starring Kevin Costner as a farmer who got to play baseball with the ghost of the father he had taken for granted. As with many of the malignant elements in American cinema – the reverence towards opening weekend takings, the supremacy of the blockbuster, the career of Michael Bay – it would be possible to blame this whole voyage-round-my-father cinematic movement on Steven Spielberg.

Possible but also simplistic. Spielberg may not be a profound artist but he is a painstaking one, and his ongoing exploration of the father- son dynamic defines him as much as any of his staggering visual coups. (Unlike his imitators, he doesn’t exclude women from the equation: for all that it is motivated by the absence of the father, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial features one of the most sympathetic portraits of motherhood in all cinema.) But from Spielberg’s modest debut, Duel (a one-character, 90-minute thriller made for TV in 1971 and released theatrically), to his latest film, Lincoln (nearly twice the length, with around 150 speaking parts), the concept of the father has been at the core of his vision of the world.

No journalistic spadework is required to join up the dots to the director’s own life. “I missed my dad a lot growing up, even though we were together as a family,” he said recently. “My dad was really a workaholic. And he was always working.” Rarely can a filmmaking career have been devoted so singlemindedly to addressing such a schism. Fathers in Spielberg are in prison (The Sugarland Express), away at sea (Jaws) or estranged physically (E.T.) and emotionally (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); they are fiscally vulnerable (Catch Me If You Can); their obsessions can jeopardise the family (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Munich). Movies such as Empire of the Sun, Hook, Saving Private Ryan and A.I. – Artificial Intelligence are as littered with lost sons as any orphanage, so it can only have been a matter of time before Spielberg alighted on a reliable father like Abraham Lincoln to assuage the traumas of his own past.

Whether the making of Lincoln helps Spielberg adequately to process the pain of not having his father in the bleachers is a matter for him and his therapist. But there must have been a likelihood that Lincoln would fulfil the same function for the subject of slavery that Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust: that is, to act as a minor balm to a history of deep and resonant suffering. “Think that’s about the Holocaust?” Stanley Kubrick once asked witheringly of Spielberg’s Oscarwinning movie. “That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”

Lincoln does provide a measure of comfort but it also contains a larger share of complexities than we have been accustomed to finding in late-period Spielberg. For example, it could be viewed superficially as inspirational in the modern context of President Obama’s tribulations at home: with the House of Representatives bitterly divided, what could be more uplifting than the spectacle of opposing sides united to vanquish a gross injustice by passing the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery? On the other hand, the stringpulling, mischief-making and horse-trading entered into by Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), his secretary of state William Seward (David Straithairn), and their advocates – notably a trio of wily Republican vote-snaggers (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader) – is hardly designed to have audiences saluting the US flag. At its funniest, Lincoln suggests a backstage political caper – The Thick of It with stovepipe hats and tumbleweed sideburns.

Advance enthusiasm had suggested that the movie would be the director’s chef d’oeuvre. Well, it’s certainly someone’s but it is surely the screenwriter, Tony Kushner (the playwright best known for his Pulitzer-winning Angels in America), who has brought the film its unique structural and linguistic strengths. A single-film biopic of Abraham Lincoln would have been foolhardy, so Kushner has created a fine-grained procedural drama, a portrait of the man through the prism of the battle in which his mettle was tested most fiercely – the sort of speculative reconstruction made bankable in recent years by the screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon).

The speculative element has been reduced considerably by Kushner’s fidelity to one section of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Kushner concentrates on the first four months of 1865, the last of the five years examined in depth by Goodwin, in which Lincoln invested all his energies in getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed as the civil war spluttered on.

Political nerds will experience a wave of delight as they realise that the film is going to scrutinise forensically the process by which Democrat opinion was turned and each individual vote secured. In this Lincoln most resembles Milk, Gus Van Sant’s 2008 movie about the election of America’s first openly gay male politician, Harvey Milk. Viewers hoping for a disco-era camp-a-thon might have been flummoxed by that film’s preoccupation with issues such as voting boundaries and campaign strategies. Similarly, Kushner’s screenplay is a tapestry arrived at one apparently inconsequential stitch at a time.

The only other notable film about the sixteenth president – here I must disappoint regretfully any admirers of last year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – is John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr Lincoln. Like Spielberg and Kushner’s film, Young Mr Lincoln followed a foreshortened narrative: it concentrated on its subject’s early years and found in his time as a lawyer some harbingers of triumphs to come.

There is a surprising continuity between Henry Fonda’s alert and witty performance in Ford’s film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s stately turn in Lincoln. For all their differences in methodology, there’s a baked-in wisdom and joyfulness that runs through both actors’ portrayals. Playing the younger man, Fonda was bound to have the edge in spryness, but Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is an intellectually ravenous figure who savours ideas, words and stories (especially his own). This is a performance of ruminative stillness but one that reveals the mental sparks flying even in moments of repose. He’s playing a man of just 56 years old (Day-Lewis himself is only a year younger) and he advances slowly, majestically rather than falteringly, as though he is thinking through the ramifications not only of each political move but of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s all the more shocking, then, when he raises his voice, or lashes out at his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whom he has forbidden from enlisting. The slap represents a rare moment of Lincoln losing control, of reaching for a weapon other than rhetoric or anecdote, but it also serves to remind us of the lightning reflexes beneath the meditative calm.

Lincoln begins with an intimately gruelling scene of civil war combat: punches are thrown, bayonets jabbed, a man is drowned in a muddy puddle. It’s a remake in miniature of the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan, which subverted for many viewers what the experience of a Spielberg movie could be. Thereafter, the fury and frenzy of Lincoln is entirely verbal. In a film that values the back-room mechanics of politics as much as the progress that results, it’s necessary to have actors who know the nutritional value of a hearty script.

Among a fine supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones gives the most passionate performance of his career as Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican whose personal fervour for the abolitionist cause proves inflammatory to his opponents. Only Sally Field, as the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, does an inadequate job: even Mary’s abrasive stand-off with Stevens at a dinner party can’t stop this actor drawing from her well of self-adoring tomboy toughness.

It seems almost by-the-by to praise Day-Lewis, so accustomed have we become to his landmark status among modern screen acting, but he is genuinely mesmerising, not least in his concentration and his delivery: he brings a lolling looseness to his lines so they sound like they’ve only just occurred to him. A scene depicting Lincoln meeting wounded soldiers in hospital is rendered moving by Day-Lewis’s unforced affability (“Tell me your names as I go past – I like to know who I’m talking to,” he says in a warming burr). His charisma is quietly dazzling; he makes you understand why the soldiers would get a kick simply from standing in his shadow.

Day-Lewis, Spielberg and Kushner conspire together in an overhaul of Lincoln as icon, breaking apart what we know of the man and building him up again over the course of the movie. In that nocturnal battlefield scene near the start, Lincoln sits with his back to us in semi-darkness as a group of soldiers gather round to meet him. Kushner had the tremendous idea of dismantling Lincoln’s speeches so that we never hear him deliver any of them (he is seen only once, briefly, at the podium). Instead, one of the adoring soldiers recites part of the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln, who listens humbly.

Just as Jane Campion put some of Keats’s poetry in the mouths of children in Bright Star, Kushner and Spielberg remake the familiar. The cinematography by Spielberg’s regular collaborator, Janusz Kaminski, has a magisterial grandeur – all architectural greys and steely blues burnished with pockets of warmth – but the scenes themselves can be oddly informal, whether it’s Lincoln describing a dream to Mary or lying on the floor in his stockinged feet.

In its treatment of slavery, Lincoln improves immeasurably on Spielberg’s last brush with the subject – the 1997 courtroom drama Amistad, an African-American story compromised unnecessarily for white audiences. Black characters don’t make much of a showing in Lincoln but their presence resonates beyond individual scenes. I particularly liked Lincoln’s fleeting conversation with Mary’s maid (Gloria Reuben) concerning his feelings towards her race. He gives an apologetic half-smile and admits: “I don’t know you. I assume I’ll get used to you.”

The high-water mark in the treatment of slavery in mainstream cinema has to be Ang Lee’s 1998 Ride with the Devil: what appears to be a white man’s story is eclipsed in its final moments by the quest of a black slave (Jeffrey Wright) to find the family from whom he had been separated. That was poetic justice expressed in film language, as a marginalised character gained control of the narrative. Lincoln doesn’t have anything quite so radical but it comes a close second with a point-of-view shot that puts the camera behind African-American eyes and makes the president’s butler the last person in the movie to see him alive.

Lincoln is released on 25 January

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Why can you change gender but not race?

Marina Benjamin on the curious logic of modern identity politics. 

At my daughter’s state girls’ school, many of the students see themselves as gender fluid. Some feel more like boys than girls. Others feel like boys on some days and girls on others. A lot of the girls are out, with many identifying as gay and quite a few as bi- or pansexual. No doubt, in time, a small minority of them will migrate across the gender spectrum entirely, crossing permanently from one side to the other.

Such freewheeling thinking about gender and sexual identity was unimaginable until just a few years ago, yet in this brave new world of gender mutability, most teens are as fluent as they are fluid. It is a testimony to the speed and success with which gender­queer and trans activists have challenged societal norms around masculinity and femininity, bringing about the kind of meltdown in gender roles that feminism was unable to achieve despite 50 years of trying.

This is a world in which, controversially, subjective feeling reigns supreme. If you feel male and wish to be known as “he”, then that is your prerogative, regardless of your sex. As Frank Browning points out in The Fate of Gender, US colleges (those ever-sensitive barometers of social change) now routinely ask students for their preferred personal pronoun. They provide “gender-neutral” toilets and free counselling for transsexual students. One elite college recently cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues after some students protested that “not all women have vaginas”.

Browning’s interest is in the way “gender radicals” have “[upended] the routines, rituals and rules of gender”, leading to radical transformations in how we live. Like a disaster tourist travelling through an earthquake zone, he finds his eye drawn to “upheavals”: to kindergarten ­teachers in Oslo, dedicated to eradicating what they see as gendered behaviour in the very young children they teach; to same-sex couples negotiating new ways of parenting post-­surrogacy or adoption; to a voyeuristic drive-by past Naples’s femminielli – street-walkers famed “for their beautiful legs, their sumptuous breasts and their large penises”; to discussing masturbation with a middle-aged Shanghai sociologist who offers classes in self-stimulation to empower women.

The politics of the transgender movement skids in and out of the narrative but never moves centre-stage. Browning is more interested in gender equality at work, or how the Catholic Church is and isn’t adapting to gay marriage.

Browning spent many years working as a radio journalist and his book resembles nothing so much as a mid-morning magazine programme. There’s a bit of chat, a bit of travel, a sprinkling of interviews with academic experts and some sharp insights that get somewhat lost in the babble. The result is a loose collection of gender-busting exemplifications, rather than a tightly argued thesis. You could reorder half the chapters in the book and still enjoy the same mildly entertaining reading experience.

Some of the most fascinating subjects that Browning touches on remain underexamined. He notes, for example, that at least one in every 1,500 (some suggest the figure is more like one in 150) children born in the US and Australia is intersex: that is, they possess genitalia and a chromosomal identity that admit of ambiguity. Until very recently, doctors in the US would perform sex reassignment surgery on such newborns, at the risk of leaving them infertile and, just as dreadful, in bodies that they would often grow up believing to be wrongly sexed.

Browning doesn’t interview anyone who has had such an experience, or mine literary works for perspective, or link the intersex phenomenon into broader identity politics, or discuss the painful subterfuges that hermaphrodites such as the late Olympic track and field star Stella Walsh resorted to in order to “pass” – in her case, as female. Instead, he makes a rather tenuous link between the horrors of institutional surgical reassignment and tribal female genital mutilation. Cutting is cutting, of course, and always reprehensible, but readers never get to grips with what it means to be intersex.

It’s a shame, because, as Rogers Brubaker argues in his pacy and stimulating extended essay Trans, it is in the in-betweenness that our binaries break down, whether we are talking about nature v nurture (where discoveries in epigenetics are busy dissolving firm oppositions); male and female (those tired categories with which trans politics is playing havoc); or, most interestingly, black v white. Following social scientists such as Alondra Nelson of Columbia University, Brubaker takes up the case that race has little basis in genetics: it is an epiphenomenon, or, to use the lingua franca of anti-essentialists, a “social construct”.

Brubaker’s book was inspired by the media’s synchronous pairing of Bruce Jenner’s rebirth as Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal’s outing as white in 2015. Dolezal had lived as a black woman for years, braiding her hair and darkening her skin. She identified as black and became head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yet in most quarters her claim to be black met with angry ridicule. Her reception was in pointed contrast to Jenner’s, whose debut as Caitlyn was heralded by a sexy Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series. If public legitimation could be ­extended to Jenner, why not to Dolezal?

Dolezal’s teacher memorably called her “a white woman with a black soul”, but this was not enough, Brubaker says, to counter the flurry of negative commentary about “passing, choice, authenticity, privilege and appropriation” – which are precisely the themes that animate his lively book. He makes a persuasive case that the trans movement belongs to “a much broader moment of cultural flux, mixture and interpenetration”, of a piece with the “burgeoning discussions of hybridity, syncretism, creolisation and transnationalism in the last quarter-century”. Simply put, Trans illus­trates a sharpened tension between the language of choice and that of givenness.

The nub of Trans’s argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical. In public discourse today, there is no such thing as a racial spectrum: you can’t be a bit black or a bit white. You have to choose and you certainly can’t cross over to the other side. As Brubaker sums it up: “Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self.” Dolezal was guilty of “cultural theft” (in contrast to Michael Jackson, who was deemed a race traitor, she was a “race ­faker”); Jenner was fighting gender oppression.

I remember getting flamed on Twitter when I asked why the hell Dolezal couldn’t be considered black. The hot-button term, it turned out, was “transracial”. This expression emerged in adoption circles, where activists concerned that adoption “could lead to changes in racial identity – in particular to the loss of one’s authentic identity for want of social support for it”, sought to strengthen racial categories. I also received a dozen tweets telling me that Dolezal hadn’t suffered enough to be black – a line likewise pushed by some feminists critical of the territorial claims made by transgender women.

With respect to Jenner, I was sympathetic to views expressed with wicked humour by Germaine Greer, but more acceptably by ­Lionel Shriver, who, in response to Jenner’s claim to have a “female brain”, railed against the neo-essentialism of the trans movement for relying on and reinscribing outmoded gender stereotypes. Pointedly, Brubaker also notes “the remarkable power of the binary gender system to adapt to and reabsorb transgender people”. Better to make a show of taking in migrants than to acknowledge that your borders are fundamentally weak.

With its push-me-pull-you politics, gender fluidity understandably creates controversy. The irony is that, in theory at least, transracialism ought less to do so. Not only is there no genetic basis for racial difference, but the boom in genetic ancestry testing, which tests autosomal DNA (inherited from both parents, and accounting for the full, multi-stranded range of one’s genetic ancestry), often reveals complex mixtures of biogeographic lineage, thus leaving considerable room for what Alondra Nelson calls “affiliative self-fashioning”.

Genetic ancestry testing gives credence to the likes of Dolezal, who might wish to see herself as environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually black, even if the “technologies of migration” which support transgender journeys – institutionalised in legal, medical, social and activist bodies – are not yet in place for transracial journeys such as hers.

However mind-bending such ­determined migrations might seem, the brouhaha over race and gender shows that we are primed to understand categories of identity in ways that are legibly embodied. In this, we are not so different from our intellectual ancestors the ancient Greeks, who, as Adrian Thatcher reminds us in Redeeming Gender, championed a “one sex” theory on the basis of bodily homologies between men and women that saw female genitalia as mirroring male genitalia. Only inside out.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “The Middlepause: on Turning Fifty” (Scribe)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times