Daniel Day-Lewis Plays Obama
The first sequence of Steven Spielberg’s new epic film, Lincoln (2012), finds the President, battle-weary, sitting on a wagon in the shadows, chatting with some soldiers. At first, an enthusiastic African-American soldier recites the beginning of the Gettysburg Address, interrupted by his more radical, angry African-American compatriot. Then, baby-faced white soldiers continue the recitation of Lincoln’s famous speech. After all others leave the president’s side, the bitter black soldier finishes for his departed companions, walking away in ironic disgust. The sequence is both funny and riveting, yet I begin with it because it allows me to unpack how good this film is, and yet how correspondingly awful the initial popular criticism meant to celebrate it has been.
On Friday, November 9, Kenneth Turan on National Public Radio gushed about what a great writer Tony Kushner is and the miraculous way Daniel Day Lewis disappears into the role of Lincoln. These simplistic claims obfuscate the complexity of the matters at hand. First, Tony Kushner is one of the most accomplished figures in the contempoary American theatre. His historical epic, Angels in America uses the Brechtian techniques of split stage and one actor playing multiple characters in order to express how human dignity can triumph over the diabolical political machinations of the likes of Roy Cohn as late 20th century America confronted the AIDS plague.
The translation of political modernism into popular audiovisual representation has not gone well. HBO’s conversion of Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project resulted in gimmicky stunt casting of Hollywood stars–Peter Fonda and the like–stripping the multiple casting of its political effect: on Kaufman’s stage, the actor playing homophobic preacher Fred Phelps puts down his “God hates fags” sign, walks across the stage, and sits down as another character, one of the jurors at the trial of Matthew Shephard’s murderers. No justice possible, Kaufman’s play thus speaks without words, merely relying on the horrifying stage picture.
HBO’s televisual adaptation of Angels in America, on which Kushner collaborated with Mike Nichols, fared just slightly better: the multiple casting was retained this time, but nonetheless, the reliance on big Hollywood stars–on the order of Meryl Streep–stripped the play of its modernist minimalism. However, despite collaborating with an even more extremely classical filmmaker this time on Lincoln, the populist master Steven Spielberg, this film solves the problem of classical cinema’s stripping of modernism’s politics with skillful ambition. In the opening scene, despite there being no Brechtian tricks employed, the splitting of historical subjects is nonetheless directly presented on the screen. In a clever gesture, Kushner and Spielberg present the Gettysburg Address as a discursive battle, delivered not coherently BY Lincoln, but through multiply diverse voices speaking it AT him, and us.
And here we get to the crux of the impoverishment of contemporary popular film criticism. In his review for the McClatchy-Tribune service, Roger Moore declares, “the Lincoln that American schoolchildren picture in their heads from now on could now have a weedy drawl provided by an Oscar-winning Englishman, one of the finest actors who ever lived.” Yes, Daniel Day Lewis does a wonderful job portraying Abraham Lincoln, but so would any number of method actors, ranging from Robert DeNiro to Dustin Hoffman. In a tragically understudied essay on historical fiction, “A Body Too Much,” film theorist Jean-Louis Comolli suggests that the problem with the biopic is that there are one too many persons present within a performance of a famous historical figure, both the actor and the person whom she portrays. As opposed to a classical Hollywood film like John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), in which Henry Fonda embodied the triumph of down-home American values on the precipice of World War II, Day-Lewis evokes a Lincoln caught in the swirl of chaotic historical forces. Comolli’s brand of post-structural theory posits that split subjectivity, not individual coherence, describes the human experience. Daniel Day Lewis does not disappear into one coherent Lincoln, but instead delivers a fragmented performance.
The fact of the matter is that there is no one coherent Lincoln into whom Day-Lewis could disappear. Would he be the revered storyteller of simplistic American myth? Is he the shrewd political manipulator portrayed by the book on which the film is partly based, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln? Or should he be the villian of the neo-confederacy, as Thomas DiLorenzo positions poor Abe in Lincoln Unmasked and The Real Lincoln? Instead, Kushner’s Angels in America prepares us to see history as the debate among the shards of historical subjects that make up our past and affect our present. When Lincoln finally stops hiding in his office to stump for passage of the 13th Amendment to banish slavery in the United States, he reminds one of Lyndon Johnson on late-night phone calls in the 1960s, threatening and cajoling Congress for the passage of the Great Society. And most crucially, as the film depicts the wildly divisive 1860s House of Representatives, on the floor of which Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens had to endure the racist taunts of border state Democrats, viciously defending the specious eugenic argument of white people’s superiority to black people, one cannot help but think that President Obama’s struggle with health care reform in our divisive Tea Party house pales in comparison. And thus, I concur with the popular film critics’ celebration of Daniel Day-Lewis’ masterful embodiment of the president: Lincoln… and Johnson… and Obama.
– Walter Metz