Monday, February 4, 2013

In Excelsis Lincoln

Just as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was settling into movie theatres, critic Nick Coccoma wrote this captivating study of the enduring myth of the both the man and the legend - especially in film - for Critics at Large.

Abraham Lincoln: Myth and Man

Who was Abraham Lincoln? Americans have mined that question since the moment he died from an assassin’s bullet on Saturday, April 15, 1865 at 7:22am. They’d wondered about it long before that tragic day, in fact, ever since he stepped out from prairie obscurity onto the national political scene in the late 1850s. Proffering the answer has yielded prodigious results: the number of books written about Lincoln and the Civil War now equals the amount of days that have passed since Lee surrendered to Grant. A museum attached to Ford’s Theatre recently stacked a pile of Lincoln biographies into a 35-foot tower for display. Writers have spilled more ink about the sixteenth president than any historical figure save Jesus of Nazareth; he lays claim to a similar global appeal. No less than Leo Tolstoy ranked him as the greatest leader in history, dwarfing the Napoleons and Caesars. “His example is universal and will last thousands of years,” the novelist predicted. “He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”

But despite the insatiable digging, Lincoln still eludes our grasp. As with Christ, we can’t ever seem to exhaust the mystery of his being. When you read material about or even from him, you get the sense that the true man, unlike other historical figures, floats in a realm impossible to pierce. Albert Schweitzer famously characterized 19th-century theologians’ quest for the historical Jesus as akin to looking into a deep well and seeing their own reflection in the water. We’ve done the same with Lincoln, constantly remaking him in our own image. Indeed, from the beginning people have compared him to Christ, and it’s difficult to resist the temptation. After all, he bore the name of a biblical patriarch, liberated millions from slavery, and was shot on Good Friday. I mean, really.

Whether Christ or not, whatever Lincoln idol we choose to worship tells us as much about ourselves in general, and Americans in particular, as it does the man from Illinois. He perches a pedestal on the National Mall, resplendent in marble, enthroned like Zeus in a Greek temple. And there he sits as the small wooden statue I bumped into while breezing through a folk art exhibit recently in Cooperstown, beardless and on a simple kitchen chair. We might call the first example Lincoln the myth – the outsized titan, with the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural engraved on either side, symbolizing the United States’s view of itself as a beacon of transcendent values. The other is Lincoln the everyman – the hewn pine and drawn face emphasizing our romantic exaltation of plain commonsense and rural authenticity as the true America.

These iterations are idealizations, and they each do the man both justice and injustice. Lincoln was and is a fascinatingly complex human character. And therein lies the problem. Like any idol, each of these efforts captures only a sliver of its subject, reducing the part to the whole. The earlier comparison to Christ proves instructive here, for no aspect of Lincoln’s person is more enigmatic. On the one hand, he wrote the most scripturally-informed prose and acted with greater moral integrity than any president. He wrestled ceaselessly with the meaning of life and by the end of the war had the felt sense of being an instrument in the hand of God. Yet his acute rationality led him, in youth, to assault Christian doctrine, dabble in the “Free Thinking” movement, and forever refrain from attending church services. As one churchman put it, “Of all the Presidents of the United States, Lincoln was one of the least orthodox, yet the most religious.” That double-sided reality didn’t stop many others from proclaiming him the Martyr President, though, or halt the nation from deifying him. The mourning ceremonies after his death amounted to “the grandest funeral spectacle in the history of the world,” concludes Merrill Peterson in Lincoln in American Memory. An estimated one million people viewed his body before interment.

Summing up anybody’s essence, let alone a personage of such weight as this, is an impossible task. And so we give it to artists. When they manage to fulfill it – when the creative mind hits upon the same sublime source that fired Lincoln’s own genius – they rise above the muddy partial perspectives and grasp an apprehension of the truth, with all of its paradox, irony, and astonishment. The latest attempt to capture the dead president – Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln, based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterpiece Team of Rivals – comes out in wide release this Friday. The advance buzz it has generated removes all doubt (as if any remained) about the state of his popularity. It’s not the first movie to treat him, however, and two of its predecessors – D.W. Griffith’s 1930 picture Abraham Lincoln and John Ford’sYoung Mr. Lincoln from 1939 – illustrate the wrong and right way, respectively, to go about it. In the process, they teach us how differing approaches to storytelling and acting – artistic styles – decide a movie’s success or failure at communicating truth. These criteria will determine Spielberg’s success at capturing Lincoln.

Walter Huston as Lincoln
The wrong way succumbs to the temptation of the statues mentioned earlier: to mythologize Lincoln, in either the triumphal or prosaic direction. Such efforts select and embellish one piece of a multidimensional reality.Abraham Lincoln lands in this category. On one level, it’s fascinating as a piece of hagiography. It runs rife with embellishment, as in accounts of saint’s lives from the early Christian church, and (like them) says more about the people who made it than its subject. That would be Griffith in this case, who portrays Lincoln as a Christ figure. He’s the Savior of the Union, though, not slaves. The picture opens with a sobering image of a slave ship tossing Africans overboard while crossing the Atlantic, but quickly subordinates this theme to that of preserving the nation. Griffith pairs two quick scenes together, one of Virginia slave-owners threatening secession, the other of Boston abolitionists plotting the same. The year is 1809, and the scene cuts to a windswept log cabin in the Kentucky forest in which Lincoln’s mother has just given him birth. She pronounces the name Abraham on him with biblical tremolo. You can’t get more heavy-handed.

This tone continues as the movie progresses into Abraham’s life in Springfield. As played by Walter Huston, Lincoln comes off like an uncouth country bumpkin a bit slow on the uptake. He’s thick somehow, like a high school jock, wanting just to neck with his sweetheart Ann Rutledge rather than listen to the law she reads him. Griffith builds on the legend of Rutledge and Lincoln’s tragic romance that William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, began with his 1889 biography. Ann comes off as some ethereal orb, a glowing angel that speaks like a nymph. Abe prophecies to her that he will see her face until the day he dies; when she contracts typhoid, he throws himself at her bedside and weeping. He does the same on her grave later, howling out her name in a rainstorm. Griffith turns Lincoln into the apotheosis of the Romantic era the president lived through. It’s based in some reality – Lincoln did, in fact, have a relationship with Rutledge as a young man, and her death precipitated a major depressive episode in him. But the movie inflates these facts to excessive degrees.

It inflates Lincoln as president, too, rendering him as an embalmed Zen master. The narrative unfolds in discreet episodes, like vignettes of Lincoln’s life that lack connection in either character or theme. Throughout the war period, he ceaselessly utters the mantra, “The Union will be preserved!” He stares off into space as he does, lost in an otherworldly nirvana as generals and cabinet members deliver news. He becomes Jesus Incarnate as the tale goes on, deeply ruminating on the word peace and surprising an Army court martial to grant clemency to the soldier on trial. He’s so peace-loving that he reacts with horror when Grant asks whether to have the surrendered Lee shot. He also tells the general to let Confederate president Jefferson Davis elude capture, a beguiling smile crossing his face as he contemplates taking the South back “as if they’d never gone away!” At Ford’s Theatre, he delivers snippets of the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address together before being shot.

It’s not that these elements are totally preposterous. Lincoln’s merciful temperament was widely known; he did pardon dozens of soldiers and years later Grant claimed the president had confided in him his hope for Davis’s escape (he didn’t). Yet Grant acted with just as much magnanimity toward the defeated Confederates – he gave Lee generous surrender terms on his own initiative, with the president’s approval. Lincoln was indeed preparing to enact lenient reconstruction measures on the southern states to hasten national reconciliation. But he didn’t walk around like the Buddha, completely detached from and untroubled by reality. And he came to see abolishing slavery as the war’s purpose beyond even maintaining the Union. In treating Lincoln’s marriage, Griffith presents Mary Todd as an insufferable hell cat, shrewish and self-centered beyond belief. This portrayal was part of the Rutledge legend, which claimed Lincoln never really loved Mary, whom many of his friends disliked. In truth, she was prone to drastic mood swings (her son, Robert, had her committed in later years) and the couple did have strains in their relationship. But Lincoln never showed signs of it and they had a private intimacy no one else accessed.

In sum, Griffith seizes on certain facets of Lincoln’s story, personality, and relationships and balloons them out of proportion, discarding contradictory parts along the way. In other words, he turns the tale into a melodrama. The result is a rather ridiculous rendering of two-dimensional characters acting and behaving in ways nobody does in real life. Thus we see how style and content merge in artistic creativity. To mythologize Lincoln, Griffith has to adopt a melodramatic approach to his subject. He means to honor his subject by this tactic and revere his greatness. But this mythic Lincoln, as stated earlier, comes out the other end as a befuddling, partial version of the true man. He makes no connection with your own humanity. The film actually dishonors its subject by flattening him out and sensationalizing his emotions. And there’s the rub: Melodrama always fails as art, because it necessarily falsifies reality – cutting out complexity, cherry-picking slices of truth, and baking them into top heavy caricatures.

Walter Huston in D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln
The right style instead presents a character in all his polygonal intricacy. That is, it captures the real person – and the person is always more interesting, meaningful, and instructive, that the myth. John Ford employs it masterfully in Young Mr. Lincoln. The movie is based on the true story of Lincoln’s most famous trial: his 1858 defense of William “Duff” Armstrong, accused of drunkenly murdering Preston Metzker on an August night the previous year. Screenwriter Lamar Trotti alters the history, having Lincoln defend a pair of brothers, Adam and Matt Clay, out of love for their mother, Abigail (whom he identifies with his own mother). But while this courtroom drama serves as the narrative frame, Ford adapts it and builds a whole life world around its skeleton—including a fully realized Abraham Lincoln. Much of this is due to his wonderful ensemble of actors, who play the Springfield citizens with delightful rowdiness and mirth. Ford prevents the film from turning into a stuffy period piece.

But the lion’s share of the achievement belongs to Henry Fonda, in an inspired turn in the title role. The contrast with Huston could not be starker: rather than engaging in exterior mannerisms, Fonda gives a completely interiorized performance. It’s method acting before it really caught fire onscreen in the decade to come with Brando and company. It captures you from the first scene, in which Lincoln’s earlier law partner, John Stuart, introduces him as a candidate for the Illinois state legislature in 1832. After Stuart’s blustering, a sheepish Lincoln awkwardly mounts the porch. He is shy, hesitant, and soft-spoken. “I’m plain Abraham Lincoln,” he mumbles, like a teenager with stage fright. This is not the Lincoln of legend. Yet from that moment on, he completely endears himself to you, because you see him as an ordinary man.

This surprising revelation of interior life continues as the movie portrays his life in New Salem with Ann Rutledge and beginnings as a lawyer in Springfield. Fonda’s Lincoln softly grows in complexity and richness. He’s insecure, self-deprecating, and plagued by doubt. Yet he also displays courage, power, and righteous anger. Fonda keeps showing you another side of him: in the scene just after brilliantly using his reason, humor, and strength to disarm a mob bent on lynching his clients, Lincoln downplays his actions with embarrassment. He talks with continued self-effacement during a formal dance at the house of Ninian Edwards, Mary Todd’s cousin. When an admirer asks if he’s related to the distinguished Lincoln family of Massachusetts, he meekly demurs. “No Lincoln I know ever amounted to a hill of beans,” he cracks to their amusement. Later, while dancing with Mary, he’s a deer caught in the headlights, bumbling around like a terrified, precious middle school student. Yet during the trial scenes he conducts himself with complete self-command and mastery of other people. He acts counter-intuitively, selecting the town drunk for the jury because the man is delightfully honest about his faults. When he cross-exams J. Palmer Cass—wonderfully played by Ward Bond, a Ford regular—he asks him what the J stands for. Cass, who lies and claims he saw the Clay brothers kill the victim, tells him it’s for John. Lincoln jumps: “Well, then I’ll just call you jackass!” When the prosecutor denounces Abigail Clay in a histrionic fit, Lincoln defends the poor widow in quiet outrage at the man’s insensitivity.

Here Ford and Fonda hit on something like Lincoln’s essence: he was, in real life, a man who mysteriously “combined sets of opposite qualities,” Joshua Wolfe Shenk observes in Lincoln’s Melancholy. He matched a moral repugnance for slavery with the shrewd political objectivity that radical abolitionists lacked. He was unsteady but strong, Harriet Beecher Stowe noted, like a cable that shakes in a storm but moves ineluctably to its end. This was a man who could get up and deliver the Gettysburg Address and immediately think it was a failure. His greatest talent – the trait that separated him from other politicians and won him the people’s trust – was his penetrating power of reason and thought. He had the uncanny ability to seize the nub of an issue and render it both with crystal clarity and common-sense expression (as Ford depicts in the lynch mob scene). Yet the morning after giving his Cooper Union speech in New York in 1860 – an anti-slavery tour de force that brought down the house and which the New York Tribune dubbed one of the “most convincing political arguments ever made in this city” – Lincoln admitted, “I am not sure that I made a success.”

Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln
On the one hand, he was famous for his humor. He knew more stories, cracked more jokes, and delivered better timed wit than any of his contemporaries. But on the other, he told these jokes in great part to cheer himself up. For, truth be told, he was a deeply sad man. Nearly everyone who met him commented on the heavy sorrow he wore; Herndon said “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” He had at least two episodes of major depression in his younger days, during which his friends feared he was suicidal. Oppressed by his painful self-consciousness – compounded by the deaths of his mother, sister, children, friends, and then tens of thousands of his countrymen during a war he resolved to fight – he was often caught gazing out windows in silent, gloomy contemplation. He struggled mightily to understand the meaning of his life and the suffering he endured.

Fonda gets at all these emotions with a deft touch. When talking to Abigail Clay at her house, Lincoln casually mentions the deaths of his sister and mother. Fonda doesn't play up the sadness. He reads the lines with a slight tinge of melancholy, staring off for a moment, then swiftly changes topics with a smile or joke. This only deepens the fascination you feel for Lincoln – you want to see that darkness he’s staring into, curious about the secret he partially unveils. Fonda merely hints at this abyss, calling attention to it out of the blue and then just as quickly pointing you away. You have the sense of being in the presence of a man haunted, transfixed by his vision of troubling deep waters. In this manner, he incarnates Lincoln’s elusive nature – the mystery of his being mentioned before. Herndon claimed that while Lincoln was usually either sad or joking, at times his consciousness took on a third state – a mood “kindly thoughtful.” It is to this place that Fonda returns his Lincoln time and again, whether from cracking a witticism or a brief meditation on death. He conveys the liminal space that Lincoln occupied, according to many observers. His Lincoln is detached and present, sad and serene. The movie flushes with poignancy as a result – you share in Lincoln’s bittersweet sensibility, loving this man with his preternatural sense of life’s admixture of beauty and loss.

Pauline Moore as Ann Rutledge
It floods you deeply in the scenes with Ann Rutledge at the movie’s outset, which couldn't come off more differently than Griffith’s. Ford and Griffith share the same material here, but the former mutes it so it can draw you in. The two lovers could be any young couple; they act with such contemporary normalcy. Their interplay is soft, with Abe downplaying his abilities as Ann tries to coax him to believe in himself. While she extols his intelligence and ambition (Lincoln was incredibly ambitious), he confesses his insecurities. Whereas Griffith has the pair go over the top in their profusions of love, Fonda and Pauline Moore (as Rutledge) underplay everything – the scene is full of pregnant pauses as they gaze at each other. It’s as much about what is implied as what is made explicit, about their strong feelings for each other, yet inability to cross the divide between them. When he visits her grave later during the winter, there’s not a trace of melodrama in him. He talks to her in that folksy voice, bearing a soft half-smile, putting fresh flowers on the ground and sheepishly venting his same self-doubts. He never calls attention to his grief, which ironically heightens your sense of it all the more – you supply the feelings that he lets go unsaid. Fonda withdraws to open a space your own emotions fill.

This style works to devastating effect in a seemingly inconsequential scene of Lincoln riding with a friend from town to visit the Clay family near the middle of the film. His companion sees him staring at the river (which the movie associates with the dead Ann) and chuckles, “Never saw a man like you look at a river like you do. Folks would think it’s a woman or something.” Abe just looks at him with a smile and begins playing a tune on his Jewish harp. His friend asks about its origins and Abe explains: “Comes down from David’s harp in the Bible.” His friend makes an innocent joke about biblical people having funny tastes in music, before inquiring about the song’s title. “Don’t know,” Abe quips. “Catchy though!” The friend agrees, beaming: “Makes you want to march or something!”

Fonda's Lincoln at the grave of Ann Rutledge
The tune Lincoln plays is none other than “Dixie,” the anthem of the Confederate Armies during the Civil War. It carries a nostalgic poignancy even on its own terms. But coming at the end of this scene – with its unsaid acknowledgment of Lincoln’s melancholy over losing Ann; its subtle connecting him to a biblical king who suffers in triumph – it simply overwhelms you. For you know what Lincoln does not yet know – that this song will be the cause of so many deaths, including his own. (After hearing of Lee’s surrender in 1865, he asked a band to play it at the White House before a throng of revelers. “I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard,” he exclaimed to the crowd. Five days later, he was shot.) It’s an aching, proleptic moment, foreshadowing the war that will one day add so much suffering to his life. And you feel this fear and pity all the more seeing the ironic way he and his friend enjoy the tune. Ford lingers on the pleasant scene, the riders casually meandering past the river, the friend whistling along with the harp, the mournful, evocative music hovering in the air. It’s as if time stops, everything is at rest and, for a brief space, Lincoln has found peace. It all accrues to put you emotionally in touch with the irreducibly tragic and incontrovertible fact: that he was a good and ordinary man who could have been your friend, that he pondered life and did the best he could to live it well, and that in the end he would be murdered along with so many other good people. All you can do is weep.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln 
That’s the difference between art and artifice. Art allows for genuine emotion in the audience; artifice forces grandiose feeling in the actor. Which way will Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis go? Rule of thumb: actors who show how hard they’re working usually aren't  for superficial gesture is always easy. And fake. Getting at a character’s core psyche and letting acting choices arise from within makes for the truly difficult task. And it often goes uncelebrated, for it demands the actor subsume himself, playing to the other performers and not the camera. We must hope Day-Lewis (who’s developed a nasty habit of overacting in his recent films) takes a cue from Fonda, who achieves the psychological identification that effects emotional realism. He makes himself isomorphic with his character, so that you don’t even realize he’s acting – it seems like he’s just playing himself. Yet his self comes out as nothing else than all the emotions that belonged to Lincoln, in the manner the man actually expressed them. He’s slipped into his skin, and you hardly notice. It looks easy and relaxed, but in fact it’s very hard.

Indeed, dying to your ego is always hard, whether onscreen or off. But Lincoln did so in his political life, and he deserves an actor who can do so in his screen life. Fonda meets that mark, never calling attention to himself. It’s a consummately understated performance. And paradoxical: he showcases a tremendous emotional range, yet delivers it in a tightly controlled manner. This Lincoln is full of contradictory traits, but they’re all modulated in one cool, sensitive, streamlined character. Without any awareness, you find yourself loving this mellow, witty, kind soul. Seeing him in all his ordinariness engenders a greater appreciation for his personal and public achievements than the myths ever could. He strikes you as a man who has experienced all that can be experienced – all the goodness and grief – and broken through to a place beyond time, full of the transcendent wisdom that, as Northrop Frye puts it, “in the midst of death we are in life.”

This wisdom separated Lincoln from all his contemporaries, and earned him a singular place in people’s hearts the world over. Through all his personal sufferings and those of the nation he loved, he reached a higher viewpoint amidst the cacophony of war. He apprehended, as no one else did, that “the cause worth struggling for went beyond any partisan or temporal sense of right or wrong,” Shenk explains. “There was a supreme right that all people should work for, regardless of what agony or joy it brought in the short term. Hindrances to that goal might be frustrating or excruciating, but the goal could be defeated only if the people forsook it.” Lincoln found meaning for his own life in this truth; with Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford and Fonda show him as he learns. The effect is sheer pathos.

- originally published on November 13, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Nick Coccoma is a Master of Divinity candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College, and a B.A. in theatre from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he also taught religion at the Nativity Preparatory School, a tuition-free, Jesuit middle school serving boys from low-income families in Boston

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