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Out Upon the World’s Stage: Lincoln as History and Tragedy

Tony Kushner once admitted that he found the prospect of writing about Abraham Lincoln to be a daunting challenge. “The hard thing,” Kushner said, “is that Abraham Lincoln was a genius—I use that word very, very seldom—but I think that he was really one of the upper-echelon geniuses, like Shakespeare or Mozart or Michelangelo. It’s very difficult to write about people like that.” When Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” finally got made, after years of discarded drafts and dismissed writers cycling through development hell, it was Kushner, the playwright behind the generation-defining Angels in America, who gave it words and style and structure, in spite of his initial reluctance. But the result was remarkable: the rare Spielberg film whose authorship can be attributed just as much to another creative besides Spielberg himself.

Spielberg and Kushner’s “Lincoln” has a mélange of influences, from the patriotism of John Ford’s films to the battered-but-optimistic tone of Obama-era rhetoric. But what Kushner, who got his start directing student productions of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, brings to this story are the echoes of his theatrical experience, both in its dialogue-driven scenes and in the film’s strong debt to the style of Shakespearean tragedy and history. “All politicians are actors in some ways,” Kushner said before the film’s release, and he found Lincoln to be no exception: “He was obsessed with Shakespeare, which probably along with the Bible was his favorite reading material. He loved actors and loved talking to actors about Shakespeare, and he loved reciting Shakespeare.” The Lincoln of “Lincoln” is not just a dead politician or a figure of historical interest, he’s the hero of a great tragedy of national proportions: to his enemies, an American Caesar; to himself, a 19th century Hamlet who stages his own play—a political play—in which he can catch the conscience of a country divided.

Kushner’s Lincoln is a self-aware tragedian, aware of his role in the great play of life. At a crucial junction late in the film, he charges his cabinet that since the country has “stepped out upon the world’s stage now,” their role must be played to completion by abolishing slavery once and for all. This is no realization on the part of Lincoln, but the natural culmination of where the character has been since the beginning of the film. One of Lincoln’s earliest lines in the film is a direct quotation from Hamlet. From the White House, the President muses to his wife that he could be “bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space...were it not that I have bad dreams.” In this early scene, Mary Todd Lincoln listens to her husband explain a prophetic dream he has had, one where he strides a vessel headed at great speed to an unseen location of great importance. Like Caesar’s “Ides of March” or the prophecies of the Macbeth’s Three Witches, this is no superstition, but a divine sign, a genuine premonition that tells both the audience and the receiving character that the hero’s story is headed inevitably to a predestined climax.

Although the audience of course knows that slavery will be abolished, the movie avoids a sense of knowing superiority on the viewer’s part by giving the characters a moment of magic wherein they can see a fated future almost as easily as we can see a fixed past. And by placing this moment so soon in the film, Kushner and Spielberg are quietly letting the audience know what kind of Lincoln story they will be telling. This will be neither a typical biopic (the film’s compressed timeline takes place over only four months) nor a Civil War epic of combat and destruction. This is the Lincoln story that Lincoln might have wanted to be told—a Shakespearean Lincoln. Lincoln’s action is through literate, at times archaic, dialogue, and the interplay of characters of different classes and backgrounds whose disagreements and attempts at persuasion turn the tides of history, in the same way the choices of the kings and emperors of Henry V or Antony and Cleopatra shape the course of fate.

A key element running through the film is the idea of performance—the notion that politics, and even history, is merely performance applied to objects of momentous importance. Appropriately, the cast of “Lincoln” is drawn heavily from New York stage veterans, in addition to Daniel Day-Lewis (who once was rumored to have seen the actual ghost of his own father on stage while playing Prince Hamlet) heading the ensemble as the Great Emancipator. Spielberg and Kushner make the very smart voice to situate the bravura performance of Day-Lewis within a dramatis personae of characters who range from the subtle to the broad. Quiet, nuanced performances sit comfortably besides grotesqueries who embody the ugly sides of American politics and discourse. The detestable duo of Peter McRobbie’s Congressman Pendleton and Lee Pace’s Congressman Wood launch furious invectives of racist bile about the “dusk-colored race” and “his Highness, King Abraham Africanus the First - our Great Usurping Caesar,” words that often sound like they could emerge from the lips of Iago. Some of the highlights of the film are scenes where the two Congressmen attempt to entrap Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, the fiery and brilliant Radical Republican leader, on the floor of the House of Representatives—these scenes play out in a deliberately stage-like manner, with the layout of the House chamber and its gallery seating evoking the feel of a theatre. This is not some affectation imposed awkwardly by a pretentious artist but is utterly fitting for a film about a man who was murdered in a theatre, by an actor. Lincoln’s life, Kushner and Spielberg seem to be saying, was theatre. His battles were theatrical, his inner struggles Shakespearean, his death as lamentable and as star-crossed as that of Romeo and Juliet.

What Spielberg and Kushner understand is that the appeal of the Shakespearean style is its blend of highs and lows, whether that means the mingling of high tragedy with flecks of low comedy, or the interactions of “high” characters—dignified statemen like Lincoln or Stevens—with “low” characters, like the sleazy lobbyists who Lincoln hires to bribe and coerce lame-duck Congressmen into voting “yes” on a Constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery. This is perhaps the most essential plotline in the film, and the one that most demonstrates the game that Kushner and Spielberg are playing: the ambition of Lincoln’s amendment is so noble, so monumental, and so morally correct, yet its execution is placed in the hands of a comical trio of grubby crooks. Led by James Spader’s rakish Southern conman W.N. Bilbo, along with the wonderful Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, the lobbyists are the movie’s version of the clowns seen in Shakespeare’s tragedy and history plays—the equivalent of King Lear’s Fool and Henry IV’s Falstaff. In Shakespearean drama, these characters lacked the righteousness or importance of the title characters, but in their vulgar humanity they illustrated just as much about life as any tragic martyr or fallen hero. While Hamlet awaits the burial of Ophelia and muses on mortality in a gloomy graveyard, Shakespeare’s audience is nevertheless treated to the clowning and comedy of two bickering gravediggers. Hamlet’s “dignity,” wrapped up as it is with ancient notions of class and aristocracy, is not contradicted by the low comedy of the bumbling clowns, but rather the whole of the situation is given over to the audience: even in tragedy, there is comedy, for the life of man is not one thing but many. Yorick the Court Jester may smile in one moment, but in the next he is dead and decayed—one does not negate the other, but both deepen each other.

The film’s evocation of stagecraft is not limited to simply the realm of dialogue—time and again in the film, Spielberg approaches the staging like a smart director of theatre, and even frames locations like the United States Capitol or the West Wing of the White House as theatrical venues themselves. In addition to the gallery seating of the House of Representatives—where Mary Todd Lincoln, like a charmed theatregoer, remarks that Congressman Stevens has become a true politician while lying, or ‘acting’ his way through a prewritten speech about his feelings on racial equality—there is an opening scene where Lincoln reviews lines of Union troops about to mobilize for a major campaign. In this scene, Lincoln sits atop a raised platform that seems intentionally hollow and flimsy to the point of near phoniness, while a very theatrical bit of overhead lighting from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski illuminates his face while leaving the other characters in darkness, almost like the kind of stylized lightning one might see in a black box theatre that makes no pretense to directly representing reality. At other moments, characters line up to eagerly watch Lincoln’s public speeches like adoring audiences fawning over their favorite actor and applaud him when he’s done; and nervous young soldiers stumble through recitations of the Gettysburg Address like jittery actors auditioning their favorite old monologues. What you end up with is a film is that is lively and full of real human touches while having, in spite of the sober subject matter, a genuine sense of fun, a theatrical air of dressing up and putting on a show.

Spielberg, like Shakespeare, is an entertainer of the first class. He has managed, throughout his career, to transcend the divisions between highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow. Like Shakespeare, the director realizes that grand themes are often best conveyed through crowd-pleasing storytelling, and that amusements are best delivered when they come baked in with a certain profundity. Though many nowadays see Shakespeare as the exemplar of high art, it should not be forgotten that his tragedies played not just to monarchs and courtiers but to the groundlings on the floor, who wanted immediate entertainment alongside the lofty ambition. “Lincoln” takes a page from that playbook. Not only are there heated political exchanges and high-minded monologues, but there is slapstick, race-against-the-clock thrills, and even some blue language from old Honest Abe himself. When Spielberg told a similar story of slavery and the Constitution in “Amistad” 15 years earlier, he neglected to make the story too entertaining. In that film, the nobility was there, but nothing common; we had kings but no clowns. In “Lincoln” he rectifies that, and, in doing so, makes a film that is not only more entertaining than the earlier movie but has more to say about the human condition.

And what better subject was there for this approach than Abraham Lincoln? The man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address was also famously a teller of tall tales and bawdy jokes. He could—as he does in the film—quote Shakespeare, Euclid, and the Bible, but he could also charm with a pithy saying or a colorful anecdote. Kushner’s screenplay captures that specific quality in not only Lincoln’s language, but the whole period’s. David Milch, the creator of TV’s modern Wild West classic “Deadwood,” once noted that Americans of the 19th century may not have been as ‘literate’ as modern audiences, but almost all of them knew the King James Bible by heart, and had some familiarity with the Collected Works of William Shakespeare. To the surprise of some, the old-fashioned language of the film did not alienate audiences but appealed to them—Kushner had a great deal of faith in moviegoers, faith that they could listen to Lincoln talk about “pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters” or Thaddeus Stevens complain about finding “the mephitic fumes” of a rival’s oratory to be “a lethal challenge to our pleural capacities,” without fully checking out. Like any good director of Shakespeare, Spielberg knows that audience members don’t have to catch every reference or immediately register every meaning of every word if they are hooked into the rhythms of the speech, and that if they buy the setting the director has created, they will accept, and even embrace, the most arcane and archaic of dialogue.

If the inspiration of Shakespearean tragedy and history gave “Lincoln” both its endearing mix of characters, its diversity of tone, and its rich dialogue, it also gave it one of its most divisive aspects: its ending. A common complaint about the film is that it goes on too long—for some, it should have ended after the Thirteenth Amendment passes through Congress; for others, the better stopping point would be the bittersweet shot of Lincoln’s silhouette quietly moving along a White House corridor on its way to Ford’s Theatre. These objections are well-founded, but also miss some of Spielberg and Kushner’s intentions. Lincoln silently walking to his unknowing doom would be an understated and effective ending, to be sure, but there would be something too modern about it, something slightly out-of-step to the rest of the film. In the structure that Spielberg and Kushner have created, it is necessary that we follow Lincoln to the climax of his life’s work. His death, a brutal murder in front of an audience of theatre-goers, punctuated, as history records, by the shouts of an actor perversely attempting to recall Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, has to be acknowledged explicitly by the film. It is the natural and organic conclusion of the story, and although the film pulls back somewhat on this point by not actually depicting the act of murder onscreen, it comes as close to evoking this moment as possible without directly showing it. Lincoln’s preteen son Tad sits in rapt attention, watching a high-spirited production of “Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp,” when a shaken man walks out on stage. “The President has been shot at Ford’s Theater!” the man proclaims, and the child screams in agony.

There is a strange artificiality to the moment, as the effect of watching a man come out on stage to deliver the news makes the whole thing feel like bit of theatrical pantomime rather than a direct representation of reality. In these final moments, there is a kind of unreal haze that washes over the whole film—it almost seems as if as Lincoln dies, and is transformed from man to myth, the movie takes on a magical quality. Lying on his deathbed, the slain President is surrounded by his closest advisors, as well as a doctor who sadly declares “The President is no more.” Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, looks down and says, in a quote taken from real life, “Now he belongs to the ages,” an epitaph nearly as poetic as Horatio’s “Good night, sweet prince / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Is this all a bit much? Maybe. But there is a necessity to it.

When Elizabethan audiences first went to the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare’s latest, they knew before they even went inside how the story would end. A white flag flying outside the Globe would mean they were seeing a comedy, with a happy ending, where love won out, and the good prevailed. A black flag, however, meant tragedy and an inevitable death. Going into “Lincoln,” the viewer knows just how the story should end, just as anyone seeing the tragedy of Macbeth knows exactly what will happen to Macbeth. History has made that decision. The choice that Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner make is to show us what is inevitable, to give us the blood and the screaming, to give us the end, even though we knew it was already coming. Why? Because they know that is a tragedy, and the laws of classic tragedy compel this ending, even if it is in defiance of modern sensibilities. Lincoln’s life—and this country’s life—the filmmakers seem to say, was lived theatrically, and it must end theatrically as well.

 

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