Louis P. Masur: Lincoln at the Movies





Louis P. Masur is a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. His most recent book is Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (Harvard University Press, 2012).

When John Ford first asked Henry Fonda to play Lincoln, the actor said no. "I can't play Lincoln. That's like playing God," he explained. "You're thinking of the Great Emancipator," responded the director. "This is the jack-legged lawyer from Springfield." Fonda relented, and the result was Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), the best film ever made about Lincoln—until now.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln both overturns a century of cinematic portrayals of the 16th president of the United States and challenges a decades-long scholarly, if not popular, vision of him as halfhearted and reluctant in his efforts to eradicate slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't just portray Lincoln, he inhabits him, giving us not a stick figure but a beleaguered leader whose crafty political genius leads to passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. The film restores for our time a vision of Lincoln as a tireless opponent of slavery and, in the process, speaks to the political problems we face as a nation today....

Lincoln the statist plays an important role in Spiel­berg's film. The president justifies the use of war powers that give him broad authority to act, and he will stop at nothing in his relentless effort to win passage of the 13th Amendment. "I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and you will procure me these votes!" he demands at one point. Tony Kushner's screenplay brings Lincoln to the edge of tyrannical rule (his Democratic opponents certainly view him as a dictator) but then pulls back. Sandburg famously described Lincoln as a "man of both steel and velvet." There is plenty of steel to go around in the film, but it is the velvet that captivates.

Lincoln is nothing if not a Shakespearean tragedy. (Lincoln himself, a great admirer of the Bard, would have appreciated that.) We get not only a doomed, ambitious hero with whom we identify, but also domestic drama (Sally Field captures the often difficult yet sympathetic Mary Todd Lincoln, an "anti-Lady Macbeth," as one reviewer calls her) and well-timed comic interludes (James Spader plays the political operative W.N. Bilbo, a Falstaffian character)....

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