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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lincoln and the Hats

Watching Lincoln reminds us that all government is driven by the exchange of favours, and that hats used to be a lot more important than they are today. In his attempt to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in the House of Representatives, this icon of probity is obliged to buy the votes of various congressmen through the promise of government jobs controlling the collection of taxes or monopolies such as Federal post offices. The modern fashion for conspiracy and political scandal (sex and drugs but strangely little rock and roll), which distracts us from the institutional nature of corruption, means that we easily forget how much government has always been (and continues to be) about rents and the privatisation of tax revenues.

The film is being lauded as one of Spielberg's finest, though I think it is too reverential to be remembered for its direction. What sticks in the mind is the quality of the lighting. In a film of muted tones, the washed-out greys, blues and browns reflect the drained and exhausted state of the nation. The use of windows to illuminate interiors, and moonlight exteriors, is quite striking and makes the sodium glow of the theatre in the last act all the more artificial (this is where Spielberg makes his one real joke, as it turns out to be a different theatre to the one where John Wilkes Booth is making an appearance). Unfortunately, Spielberg gives in to raw emotion in the rather trite coda that shows Lincoln on his death-bed bathed in a golden glow as the famous words "Now he belongs to the ages" are intoned. Though Lincoln went out with a bang, the film ends with a whimper.

Structurally, the inherently dull story of the reading and passage of a piece of legislation is broken up by three recurring tropes. The most obvious punctuation is the President's regular disputes with his wife over the sacrifice of his family to public office. Despite Sally Field's adroit negotiation of the emotional scale, this is just the melodrama of a soap opera with pretensions to Greek tragedy. The second trope is Lincoln's fondness for an anecdote at crucial moments. This is both an opportunity to leaven the film with humour and to show the human side of Lincoln as his listeners increasingly balk at the prospect of another slow-bowled "joke". Daniel Day-Lewis is at his most convincing in these scenes. Overall, his mannered style suits a film that is essentially rhetoric from start to finish (the opening scene is a toe-curling barbershop quartet rendition of the Gettysburg Address).

The key trope, which provides the backbone of the story, is the petitioning of interested parties for Presidential favour and the use of public office to secure votes: the buying and selling of power. This is initially played for laughs, around the vexed issue of an obscure toll-booth, as an example of the selfishness and lack of principle of the ordinary voter (there is contemporary edge in the satire of fiscal hypocrisy: we want the benefit, but we don't want to pay the price). It evolves through the cynical comedy of vote-buying, though this is played with greater concern for the modern proprieties of discretion and deniability than would have occurred at the time. However, it does reflect the transactional nature of politics (this is the West Wing strand). In one scene a Lincoln fixer, played by a sybaritic James Spader, blithely ratchets up the size of the role as the biddable congressmen gets cold feet.

The trope reaches its ultimate form in the negotiations with the Confederate representatives over the ending of the war, where Lincoln's strategy of making the abolition of slavery a fait accompli is shown to be the decisive argument for stopping the slaughter. Historians would quibble that Lincoln's strategy was more about maintaining the unity of the Union side and heading off demands for a more radical post-war settlement (particularly in terms of land ownership), rather than pursuing a point of principle, but you can see the yearning here for the assumed modern incarnation of Lincoln, i.e. Barack Obama (another former Senator of Illinois), to show some balls.

The three tropes display an ascending class hierarchy. We start with the petty concerns of the common people, move on to the deal-making of the professional classes and vested interests, and finally reach the strategic negotiations of society's great powers. For all Lincoln and Grant's formal insistence that the "rebs" aren't an equal nation, this is clearly a negotiation between antipathetic but peer economies: the established plantocracy of the South and the industrial plutocracy of the North (the wardrobe and cigars of Secretary of State Seward, played by David Strathairn, are highly suggestive, echoing Brunel and global trade).

The conscience of the film is the Radical leader, Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones as if auditioning for Mount Rushmore (the film's best performance). He believes in votes for women and blacks, not just emancipation, but curbs his ambitions in the interest of compromise (an Obama theme). His final scene sees him exhausted but contentedly in bed with his part-black housekeeper as she reads the text of the amendment. The key motif of this scene is Stevens' removal of his cumbersome wig, to become fully himself, which echoes Lincoln's regular doffing of his stovepipe hat (one time to retrieve a speech) and Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee's doffing of hats at the signing of the surrender. The variety of military hats, from kepi to slouch, is a testament to the thoroughness of the production, but the real message is that it's time to take them off, to stop dressing up and killing each other.

Inevitably, the last scene with Lincoln alive sees him putting on his hat before setting off to the theatre, while characteristically forgetting his gloves. Glovelessness is a symbol of democracy: the willingness to touch skin rather than interpose a leather barrier. The stovepipe hat is a symbol, a weighty and ridiculous symbol, of duty and thus fate. Lincoln's first memorable words in the film concern his unruly hair. The comment on its curliness is meant to emphasise his common humanity with the two black soldiers he is speaking to (presumably none of them used product), but the really telling movement, which you only realise later, is the doffing of the hat. The hats are gone from modern politics, but the privatisation of tax revenues, not to mention straightforward buying of favours, remains. If you want to get ahead, get a sinecure.

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