Lincoln, Shakespeare, and Tony Kushner

I saw Lincoln this week, and on balance I liked it very much. At the beginning and end (and occasionally in between) it's a sentimental pageant, with swelling chords and overbearing long takes, and for that we have Steven Spielberg to thank. The rest of the time, it's the most literate major motion picture to come along in years, as well as one of the most purely theatrical, and for that we have Tony Kushner to thank.

Kushner is the celebrated playwright of Angels in America, and his long training in theater has made him the perfect choice to handle this material. Spielberg is a master entertainer, but his crowd-pleasing instincts have served him poorly here. He did have the savvy to trim down Kushner's five-hundred-page original script to a taut political thriller; otherwise he's best when simply getting out of the way of the actors and the language. (I can think of a half dozen contemporary directors who could have done better with this script and this cast.) At times Kushner seems to be wrestling with Spielberg for the soul of the film, and fortunately, most of the time the playwright wins.

Kushner's masterstroke is to make President Lincoln a pure creature of Shakespeare. There's considerable historical truth to this; Lincoln loved the Bard from youth onward, and Shakespearean cadences hover like a ghost in his speeches. Throughout the film he is shown to be not just learned but conversant in the plays: he sprinkles lines from Hamlet and Lear and Henry IV into his everyday discourse, without loudly tagging their sources ("In Henry IV, Falstaff says...") as a lesser screenwriter might have had him do. The Wall Street Journal recently asked Kushner, "Do you think Lincoln would really quote from Shakespeare while he was in the bedroom with the First Lady?" The writer's response:

This was somebody who had an astonishing sensitivity to language. He really loved Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Robert Burns. It was a 19th century trope anyway to quote stuff, so it felt like something he would do. I guess because the scene in the boudoir with Mary was preceded by a brief dream of a ship—he'd go up to her bedroom at night in the White House and tell her dreams, sometimes really freaking her out.

Kushner's Lincoln is an amusing man, a lively storyteller and public wit, as well as a brooding private thinker. His allusions are like inside jokes—sometimes sparkling, sometimes grim—shared with himself or any kindred spirits that happen to be near.

His high-flown jokes are mixed in with plainer, dirtier ones, and this, too, is deeply Shakespearean. In my favorite scene in the film, Lincoln regales a telegraph crew with a story about George Washington and an outhouse. Moments later he is every inch the President as an important message comes over the wire. The incident calls up a variety of Shakespearean echoes: King Henry mingling with his troops to offer them "a little touch of Harry in the night"; Prince Hamlet swapping vagina jokes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern one minute and grilling them about their assignment from King Claudius the next. (Also, philosophizing about dreams in the same scene.) This fluid mix of high and low, dignity and clowning, is the essence of Shakespeare's art. Knowing this, Kushner has done more than just paint his screenplay with a little literary gloss: he's set himself the audacious task of writing Lincoln as a Shakespearean hero.

Audacious, but again, appropriate. Not only did Lincoln revere Shakespeare, his life had a famously improbable arc (log cabin to White House) and a tragic, ironic ending. He was assassinated in a theater by a failed actor. That actor once played the assassin Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Cassius (as Ken Burns's Civil War documentary delights in reminding us) delivers the lines:

                      ...How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over

In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

In the event, of course, John Wilkes Booth completed the act but botched his "lofty scene," breaking his leg as he jumped onto the stage to rail against tyrants. 

As if all this weren't enough, Lincoln was a brilliant writer, speaker, and politician who governed in both poetry and prose; a man of contradictions and shadows whose true mental makeup, racial attitudes, and even sexuality may never be known. Here's Kushner again in the Journal interview:

[Lincoln's] been described as Shakespearean.

The man that wrote King Lear and Midsummer Night's Dream had extraordinary mastery over the darkest parts of the human spirit and the brightest. I think Lincoln was a person of that magnitude.

Working from this premise, Kushner has made Lincoln a playwright's screenplay and the role of Lincoln an actor's dream. (Daniel Day-Lewis, an outsized yet nuanced performer, is perfect in the lead.) The President is given monologues galore, from backwoodsy anecdotes to a rousing pep talk in which he reminds his Cabinet, Bardically, that "we are stepped out upon the world's stage." The warring members of Congress, too, get their share of florid orations. Notably, though, Lincoln is never shown making a public speech until the very end (and this moment is unfortunately mishandled). Instead we get a portrait that is somewhere between public and private. We're allowed glimpses into the smoky backrooms of his psyche—an ambiguous pat on a young man's knee, flashes of raw anger toward his family—but Kushner, wisely, leaves no mystery resolved.

Nor is the film a pure Shakespearean character study. Just as the President mixes registers in his conversation, Kushner shuffles his influences. The operatives employed by Lincoln's Secretary of State are, as David Denby has noted, basically Mark Twain rogues. A frightening scene between Abe and Mary Todd recalls the domestic thunder of Albee, and much of the story is a procedural that reminded me of Twelve Angry Men. That film began its life as a television play and was adapted for the stage before Hollywood remade it. Lincoln's middle section, which follows the race to change minds and votes on the Thirteenth Amendment, has something of the cloistered tension, civic seriousness, and homely charm of Reginald Rose's classic.

The script does have a few clumsy moments: a scene in which Mary Todd speculates on her own historical legacy made me roll my eyes (especially because her speech starts to sound suspiciously contemporary). The indirect portrayal of the assassination—we see the patrons of a different theater reacting to the news—struck me as daring but a little silly. (In such a theatrical movie, why not show at least a glimpse of the pathetic Booth?) For the most part, though, Kushner's dramatic instincts are spot on, and the clumsiness belongs to various unsubtle close-ups, dissolves, and musical cues.

Lincoln, then, is a house divided against itself that somehow manages to stand. It's a rich linguistic soup bubbling up under a thick layer of schmaltz. Kushner should get an Oscar, as Day-Lewis should. Spielberg, who may never shoot a script of this quality again, might think about bowing out before the baser angels of his directing style get the best of him—and while he's still almost as beloved an American institution as his subject.

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