Fathers & Sons Drive the Abolition of Slavery in Spielberg's 'Lincoln'
by Tyler Wantuch
December 19, 2012
In the historical drama Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg puts children in the forefront to tie President Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) personal life with his political life. This move allows for an easy explanation for Lincoln's strong push to pass the 13th amendment while also giving a fair playing field for actor Daniel Day-Lewis to capture an intimate side of the mythical figure. The now infamous words from the 16th president in the film, "shall we stop this bleeding" refer directly to the loss of life and dignity in the Civil War, but also refer more to the youth of the United States who were fighting or would be fighting in the war.
This is a burden that is made painfully clear through his relationships with his four sons, two of which are dead even before the film begins. The other two are seen throughout the Congressional drama, sharing a considerable amount of screen time with the film's higher focus – the passage of the 13th Amendment. The fear for America's sons is tied deeply into Lincoln's own past and possible future (two more dead sons), that it shapes and explains Lincoln's actions in a neat, easy-to-swallow fashion. We don't need to get caught up in the politics or the economics of the time. Sometimes, even the abolition of slavery takes a slight backseat to Lincoln's children and the other offspring lost in the war. Instead, Spielberg paves a clear path to the right answer: we need to pass this amendment, not for us, but for the unborn millions - be they black, white, Northern or Southern.
Two of Lincoln's sons, William and Edward, don't appear in the film because they had both passed away by the time the story in this film picks up. Eddy died of tuberculosis and Willie of what was most likely typhoid fever. William's death in 1862 devastated Lincoln and is the vehicle used to help personify Lincoln's strong desire to protect the future. In an enthralling scene inside the Lincolns' bedroom, a weepy Lincoln discusses how hardly a day goes by where he doesn't think of his own lost children, a subtle hint towards Lincoln's "melancholia" which is openly presented by his restless nights and occasional listlessness.
Day-Lewis' Lincoln vacillates between socialite and a more sullen, darker character, highlighting a tendency toward depression. The inclusion of several scenes of the President moping about while gravitating towards younger men helps solidify his yearning to save those he could not in his own family. From this lens we begin to see the tragic presentation Spielberg has chosen. Not only does this forward thinking give an easy answer to the whys, but it also creates a backdrop for Day-Lewis to imagine a three-dimensional demigod; one who curls up with his son by the fireside and who can barely survive the weight of his own personal life.
The two living children play a much larger role in the film. Tad (Gulliver McGrath) is the youngest; he is seen interrupting Presidential discussions, gazing at priceless glass photography plates and even stealing a battle map or two. His omnipresence is a direct correlation to Lincoln's own thoughts. Tad's constant appearances are a physical manifestation of the burden the President is carrying: the future. No moment is more telling than the appearance of the young Tad dressed in a Union soldier costume. This is a nod to the more urgent storyline with his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whom he protected from service in the war.
Robert, though, is now nearly the only man of his age not to serve, leaving him feeling like a coward and an outcast. He begs his parents to allow him to fight, and Lincoln soon realizes he cannot forbid him. Robert's side story was carelessly handled; it seemed out of place for most of the film and ended quite un-heroically with a quick flash of Robert in uniform. However, this additional plot line was too important to Spielberg's overarching message to be left out. Spielberg's Lincoln doesn't worry only about the safety of his own son, but of all sons. He is pitted in a position in which both the families of 1865 and present day find themselves, albeit for different reasons.
Even with this heavy burden, Lincoln isn't portrayed as a fearful, depressed, pacifist leader. Instead he is willing to allow the loss of more lives, thousands more at the shores of Wilmington, in order to free the slaves permanently. To highlight this harder edge of Lincoln, early in the film we get a counter argument from the Radical Republicans, who are also feeling the sting of war. They have lost too many of their own sons in battle and are desperate for a peace treaty, even if that means allowing the Confederate States to remain independent.
In a genteel meeting with Radical Republican leader Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Lincoln and Tad plead for his votes. Blair shares the same view of protecting the future children but argues peace is more important than all other matters. Tad's presence, aside from keeping the language tamer, reminds the audience of what's at stake; we feel Lincoln begin to reel as he watches his son play with Blair. The hard bargain Blair offers is one that Lincoln should agree to. Instead, Spielberg uses this opportunity to present another facet of our demigod: his doublespeak. Lincoln twists his own words in order to maintain his personal desires. He allows Blair to go to Richmond to plead for a treaty, but has no personal intention of permitting a treaty to be passed. This is as dirty as Spielberg lets Lincoln's hands get. He lies for his beliefs and feigns a peace treaty attempt, but he pays for his actions later in the film. Lincoln may be sentimental, but his firm beliefs cannot be shaken.
Even the glaring flaws I found in Lincoln seem to melt away when we apply the lens of Lincoln's mindset of protecting the future adolescence of America. The boring inclusion of Robert, the peace treaty signing at Appomattox and Lincoln's death at the end all stood out to me as trivial or unfocused. They were not needed to tell the tale of the 13th Amendment, so I wrote them off. But as I stepped back, I soon realized Spielberg wished to not only tell the story of the amendment but also present a course of reasoning the viewer can easily grasp that would explain Lincoln's haste. With this mindset the other moments came into focus.
Robert going off to war increased the pressure of the timing. If the battle lingered on, not only would more sons rush into battle, but even Robert may see combat. The inclusion of the peace accord was a nod to reconstruction. Lincoln cared for all Americans, North and South, and wished them to be at peace in the future. He even went as far as allowing the leadership of the Confederacy to leave the United States and live their lives. He knew that the moments following the war could not result in more violence. The "hats off" respect given to the Southern Commander Robert E. Lee was a confirmation that the Northern states would follow through on Lincoln's expectations.
Finally, the assassination of Lincoln was deftly situated so the audience could see a child's loss of a father as well as a country losing its leader. I still think the ending was unnecessary, but the goal of the film was to represent Lincoln the leader and the family man as one, so I can understand why it was handled this way. The ending of the film showed that Lincoln fought with every fiber of his being to free and protect all the sons of America.
Spielberg's Lincoln is an uncontroversial Lincoln, just the way Americans want him to be. He highlights the president's integrity, thoughtfulness, and storytelling while hiding a few of his flaws in plain sight. The film fits nicely in the oeuvre of Spielberg's historical works – well crafted with an uplifting spirit that relishes in personal struggles while maintaining a larger message, not to mention his constant theme of struggle between father's and their sons.
This film is by no means as powerful as Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan, but it somehow manages to capture an air of historical integrity that is desired for such an undertaking. His connection to children is something Spielberg is unable to escape. Perhaps it's his own child-like wonder he has for cinema that begs him to create films where children are central to their theme. This may be why he latched onto the well-documented fact that Lincoln loved children and wove that sentiment throughout the film. Whatever the case, Lincoln is a steady-handed, safe, patriotic film that presented a Lincoln who cared about us all, and that's pretty comforting to see.