Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) may seem at first glance a straightforward historical film, narrating how President Abraham Lincoln ensured the liberation of the slaves at the end of the American Civil War. But closer examination of the characterisation of this great president, impeccably played by Daniel Day-Lewis, reveals a script that forces us to challenge the film’s own narrative and intentions, that undermines, in a subtle way, its claim to depict reality.
It is in Lincoln’s use of stories that we see this film turn and examine itself.
Art as politics in Lincoln
Lincoln is a film that constantly demonstrates the titular president’s well-known habit of telling stories. He does it in public speeches, in meetings with his cabinet, and in quiet moments with his family and staff. It is a powerful tool that he uses to win people over emotionally, both to himself as a folksy storyteller, and to the causes he believes in.
In itself this is a straightforward demonstration of the relationship of art and politics. Though the storytelling here is conversational, it is also an art form, just as much as novel writing or the film’s own script. These are carefully structured anecdotes, designed to stir and to intrigue. They remind us that art is often used to advance political causes, that it crosses the private and public spheres and is not ‘just entertainment’ as some would have us believe. Like the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, Lincoln opens up the relationship between politics and art.
Democrats and demagogues – rehabilitating a form
Grand political storytelling has often been a tool of those reaching for oppressive power. The European dictators of the 1920s and 1930s understood its power, using history, cinema and speeches to shift public perceptions of reality. Theirs was a simple story of ‘ordinary’ people brought low by Communists, homosexuals and Jews, in which outsiders were a threat to the common good and they themselves presented the possibility of salvation. As taught in the most basic story writing class, there were heroes, villains and conflict, and people lapped it up.
In Lincoln, Spielberg and his collaborators go some way towards rehabilitating this political tool. While the president’s use of stories is arguably manipulative, and clearly frustrating to some of his colleagues, it is used not for personal aggrandisement or scapegoating but to provide calm, comfort and eventually liberty. He seeks to sooth rather than stoke passions, to create bonds of insight into the lives of others rather than harsh divisions between in-groups and out-groups.
This is political storytelling used for good.
Truth vs story
But by featuring Lincoln’s stories, as well as a scene at the theatre near the end (fortunately not the one you might have expected), the film draws attention to the fact that stories are not truth. That they are structures that we place around reality to make a point, to shape the way others understand that reality.
It therefore challenges us to ask – what is this story trying to achieve? What role does the film of Lincoln seek to play in the political landscape?
Once we reach this point it’s easy to see links between Lincoln the character’s storytelling and that of Lincoln the film. Like the man, the film makes a point about the balance of pragmatism and idealism. It suggests that manipulation of the political system is permissible if it is aimed towards the right goals, in this case the liberation of America’s black population. But it also warns against the tyranny that comes when one group seeks to protect its own freedoms and norms at the cost of others. In an era when civil rights battles are being fought over gay marriage and freedom of speech in the era of terror, these are familiar though important concerns.
But Lincoln also points out that what is popular will not always be right, warning against the tyranny of the masses. It is on this basis that the subtle manipulations of the gentle storyteller can be considered justified. If people are misguided then does a great man such as Abraham Lincoln not have the right to pull out the same tools as the oppressors themselves, to manipulate his fellow politicians into serving the public good?
Lincoln is not a raw slice of the past. Like any history it is an act of storytelling, of fitting the facts into a structure that serves modern needs and understandings. But at least it has the decency, unlike some other historical epics, to draw attention to this fact.