Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg

I didn’t have a proper conclusion for my two articles on Spielberg’s cinema, but now I found it with Lincoln, his last film, which happens to be also a good follow-up to my last post on ethics. I must say that this is not exactly a review, because I want to focus mainly on one scene that I will use to introduce a new angle from which we can view his cinema; in lieu of proper criticism, I’ll add some general observations at the end.

As always with Spielberg, his movie is an answer to a former one; in this case, Lincoln replies to Saving Private Ryan (among others, but especially). Both movies open on a similar representation of the war: in SPR, it was a long virtuosic set-piece of the Normandy landing, the most famous scene of the movie but also the worst. A little nuance would be in order, but with its presentation of violence in a frontal, ostentatious manner, this fluid camera moving cleverly around the scene, travelling from the characters to the gruesome death of unknown soldiers and back to the characters, as if this violence was taking place especially for this omniscient camera, which always happened to be at the right place at the right moment, with all this technical skill on display, well this whole landing didn’t seem chaotic or arbitrary anymore; instead we felt mostly the absolute mastery of the filmmaker, who was using all his ingenuity to set-up the most impressive spectacle possible (and it is impressive, but this doesn’t really serve the purpose). Lincoln begins on the bloody fields of the Civil War, but this time the violence lasts about one minute: Spielberg turns away from the war itself and heads towards his main character, a Lincoln discussing with two black soldiers. From now on, the filmmaker isn’t interested in the action, but in the ideas behind it (which, incidentally, coincide with his announcement that he will no longer make action movies).

For the most part, SPR was a superb movie, but it sometimes stumbled on this violence, especially in the Normandy sequence, which was used mostly to state the obvious, that “war is ugly because people die in atrocious ways” – so obvious that we can ask if it was necessary that we endured such a representation in order to understand the point. Lincoln, on the contrary, leaves this spectacle behind and reminds us that war, previous to being a physical conflict, comes from a struggle of ideas: in order to win, Lincoln doesn’t need to crush the South; instead he has to convince them to join the Union and abolish slavery. The movie presents itself as a dilemma, Lincoln cannot both put an end to the war and ratify his amendment, or at least that is how his colleagues present the situation to him. But as Lincoln will understand, war and slavery, really it is the same fight.

Let’s come back first to SPR, which, beyond that simple representation of violence, pondered a much stronger idea, lying at the heart of Spielberg’s cinema: war is an atrocity because it compels us to quantify what cannot be, i.e. human life. Like I stated in my second article on Spielberg, in his movies evil is represented as a destructive, faceless force that stands against reason: the anonymous truck or the shark with unknowable intentions, the masked science men that terrorize E.T., the Nazi regime, the dinosaurs created by science, reason, that managed to get free, the genocidal extra-terrestrials, etc. To this enumeration of men and monsters we have to add war, slavery and terrorism, other kinds of anonymous entities, or with multiple faces that we cannot reduce to a single culprit with comprehensible intentions. These entities, though, do not challenge reason; on the contrary, they are guilty of excessive rationalism since for them individuals are nothing more than a number. A slave is a mere property, with a monetary value that we can bargain, and soldiers are used in equations that are true from the perspective of mathematics, but false from the human one.

This is the angle from which comes SPR. Its premise is deliberately absurd, even the soldiers say so a number of times: eight men to find only one, a simple soldier at that, and just because he was dressed up quite arbitrarily as a symbol by the authorities (incidentally, by comparison with a famous letter from Lincoln). The film raises this question in various ways: can we sacrifice one man to save many? Or can we risk the lives of eight men to save one? Or can we leave alive a defeated enemy and take the chance that he will kill our allies in the future? For Spielberg, war is inhuman because it makes these questions appear valid: if a man is more than a number, then there’s nothing absurd in sending eight men to save one because the worth of a human life is priceless, infinite, and for the same reason we always have to save one man even if he may afterwards kill ten; it is these very calculations of “eight against one” that are absurd. But in the context of the war, they appear logical, unavoidable, even if they’re a negation of what it means to be human. War is an atrocity not only because of the physical violence it unleashes, but more fundamentally because of the violence it inflicts to the idea of being human. Likewise, in Munich, terrorism revolves around the logic of vengeance, the idea that one equal one, but this equality is possible only if we consider these unities as replaceable, interchangeable. But, again, man is not a unity that we can substitute to another; rather, man is unique, exceptional.

So, Lincoln: at one point, the President must decide when to meet the Southern delegates who are coming to negotiate a possible peace. At first, Lincoln asks to meet them as soon as possible, even if it means that he may lose his amendment, but then he takes a pause and embarks on a long speech about Euclid’s theorem: “things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”. Equality, Lincoln reminds us, is relative: we all are equal because of our uniqueness, so in a sense we all are equal to 1, and thus equal to each other, but we are not the same 1. The perfection of the whole, of society or of the equilateral triangle, lies on the acknowledgment of this uniqueness of each man, of this relative equality, which both slavery and war flout. After his speech, Lincoln changes his mind and orders to wait for further instructions before bringing the delegates to him; he cannot choose between war and slavery because through Euclid he realizes that they are two evils coming from the same source.


My first two articles on Spielberg’s cinema were mainly about how he uses the father figure to think about what it means to make a responsible spectacle, which is still the leading thread running through all his movies; the ethical aspect that I tried to outline here is the second major axis in his work. In these articles, I completely neglected his dramas, and by writing now, separately, on Lincoln, I don’t want to give the impression that his dramas are unrelated to his action movies, because really they are two sides of the same coin. In his movies more focus on action, Spielberg aims to find reality behind the spectacle. He’s trying to find a way to talk about reality through means that we usually associate with escapist entertainment. In his dramas, he wants to show how man can be negated by war, slavery or terrorism, so there’s a similar desire to think about how our perception of man, of his uniqueness, can be distorted by certain events and make us forget the reality, or the truth, of being human. In both cases, his movies are about illusions, while they are searching for new, more truthful ways to look at the world.


Some loose notes on Lincoln:

– Lincoln’s relation with his oldest son is a reminder of the one in War of the Worlds, especially of the scene when Tom Cruise tries to stop his son to participate in the war. Both sons use the same words (“I need to go”) to validate their desire to fight, with the exception that in Lincoln Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t want to see the spectacle of war. His decision seems more responsible and well thought out, whereas in War of the Worlds the son merely wanted to be amazed by the light show behind the hills; as a result, Lincoln reacts less fiercely to his son’s decision (who is also older than the son in WotW, and Lincoln knows that the war is about to end anyway). All in all, Lincoln presents a more mature variant of a similar scene in WotW.

– Lincoln is the first good father in a Spielberg movie: in one of the first scene, he shows his affection to his younger son. His relationship with his older son is more troublesome, but it is still respectful and loving (in its own cold and distant way). And Lincoln accepts all his responsibilities, as a father of a nation (his sadness towards his people, dead in the war) and as father of a family (the guilt for his third son’s death). This is new for Spielberg, who favored before a father figure who has to become responsible during the course of the movie. This new direction is indicated in the first scene: instead of the irresponsible spectacle of war, the camera turns itself towards the ideas of the man who assumes the responsibility of said war. We’ll have to see if Spielberg will continue in this new direction in his next film.

– The representation of the African-American is quite strange: as some have noted (here, here or here), in the movie they play only a minor role that do not correspond to their real one in history (they appear passive, obsequiously receiving the gift of their freedom from the hands of the good, hard-working white men). Also, the casting is mainly mulatto, to the point that the main black characters (well, they still have minor roles, but the ones who have more than one scene) seem practically white. It may be a manner to underline the equality of men (look, under our skin we are all alike), but this is rather problematic.

– The worst scene, on that regard, is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) speech in court, which Spielberg over-emphasizes with exultant music and delirious crowds. This pompous mise en scène serves to represent the victory of Lincoln and his moderate politics over the “radical” position of Stevens: it’s an important step towards the acceptation of the amendment. But at this moment, Stevens is renouncing his most precious convictions, and he’s refusing to publicly acknowledge the racial equality of African-American, instead supporting their legal equality, as Lincoln wanted. I don’t know, but this doesn’t look like something to celebrate. It’s another good example of a tendency in Spielberg’s dramas, to emphasize the spectacle (here, the emotion of the upcoming victory of his main protagonist), while losing in the process the nuances of the scene, as in the opening of SPR.

– The final scene, Lincoln’s assassination, is a superb condensation of some of Spielberg’s most important themes: the young son watching a violent spectacle, the absence of his father being killed off-screen, and the reality of this death interrupting the representation of death on the theater scene.

– And finally, the beautiful scene after the amendment’s adoption, in which Stevens goes home, official paper in hands, returning to his black lover. Spielberg is thus saying that the amendment is somewhat useless, because the real fight has to take place in the private spheres, in our bedrooms, without our ceremonial wigs; racism is a matter of perception, and no amendment can change that. With this scene, Spielberg is inviting us to take this legal victory in our own hands and carry it on in our private life, because it’s only there that it can make sense, and it’s only through our everyday actions that we can make it true. In a number of ways, the movie is pointing to the present, by presenting Lincoln almost as a ghost-like figure, which walks away from us in his last scene, as if his ideals are not accessible to us anymore, although they could still show us the way forward (for example, the call for peace through his speech in the last scene). But we should not wait for the government to move, because ultimately we are responsible for the society we live in.

Sylvain Lavallée Écrit par :

"Car une chose est d’apprendre à regarder les films « en professionnel » - pour vérifier d’ailleurs que ce sont eux qui nous regardent de moins en moins - et une autre est de vivre avec ceux qui nous ont regardés grandir et qui nous ont vus, otages précoces de notre biographie à venir, déjà empêtrés dans les rets de notre histoire." Serge Daney

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