At first it seems odd that there have been few substantive cinematic portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, considering the incalculable impact he's had not only on American history but on the very iconography of what it means to be American. But maybe that's the reason why: he's become so iconic, so carved in stone, that dramatizing him seems an almost impossible task. We see him mainly as a mask of Americanness, appropriated every February by car dealerships, but otherwise left out of the mainstream of dramatic interpretation. Nor is he alone in this: cinema and stage give us few memorable Napoleons or Socrateses either (though 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure boldly essays all three of those historical heavyweights). The larger a character looms in history, the harder it seems to be to represent them with the specificity that's necessary for good drama -- although Jesus, the most nebulous and iconic of all, has been attempted more often than most: by Willem Dafoe, and Jeffrey Hunter, and James Caviezel, for starters. Now that we are rounding into the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and now that Steven Spielberg's long-gestating Lincoln project is getting underway with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role (filling in for the previously-attached Liam Neeson), it might be an apropos time to ask: who is Lewis competing with? Has there yet been a cinematic Lincoln that tackled, in its full depth and breadth, the complexity of this endlessly fascinating politician whose words and decisions between 1861 and 1865 arguably shaped the destiny of the United States more than any single individual before or since? The answer, surprisingly, is yes, although it happened on the small screen rather than the big one, in a production relatively few have likely seen.
More on that in a moment. Thusfar, probably the most famous cinematic Lincoln has been Henry Fonda's turn in the president's size-fourteen shoes in John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). There is, indeed, plenty to admire here, both in the performance and the casting. Fonda's resemblance to Lincoln is more than passing -- the tall, gangly profile; the high cheekbones; the deep-set eyes; the unruly black hair. In his performance, Fonda catches some essential qualities of the man that elude the typical pop-culture caricature of Honest Abe. Much here also owes to the screenplay by Lamar Trotti, of course. First, there's the ambition. Our first understanding of Lincoln in the film is of a man who knows he is destined for bigger things than the one-horse town in which he's grown up. Because Ford captures the essence of a Young Man on the Make, he gets at an aspect of Lincoln that is too-often forgotten in our post-facto conception of the wise and heroic president stamped by destiny for a Higher Purpose. There's a scene in Young Mr. Lincoln which looks forward to a thousand lesser movies borrowing the same cliche: Lincoln, unsure where to go next, drops a stick on the ground and lets its wayward fall determine his decision. This is the gesture of a man who doesn't know where he's going to go, but damn well means to go someplace. It's kind of a revelation to see the great man so young, so rudderless, so incapable of comprehending what he'll become.
The second half of the movie subordinates itself to conventions of the courtroom drama and becomes, essentially, an extended Perry Mason episode, as trial lawyer Lincoln defends a murder suspect. I don't know if the courtroom rhetoric displayed here has much to do with the real Lincoln, although the character's way with a joke -- he wins the jury over once or twice at the expense of people on the stand -- seems authentic. More interesting is a scene about 20 minutes from the end, in which Abe dismisses a helping hand offered by the presiding judge. Via his flat, reserved tone of voice and some wonderfully slouching body language, Fonda conveys the idea that Lincoln has little respect for this puffed-up factotum and knows the judge is not his equal -- not morally, not intellectually, not any which way. As he picks up a mouth-harp and plays, pointedly ignoring his interlocutor, Fonda's Lincoln displays something just short of outright contempt for the man who thinks he's offering a lifeline. Here we get a sense of Lincoln not merely as honest and kind, but as all but bursting at the seams with the barely-concealed awareness that he is generally the smartest person in the room. I suspect Lincoln felt that way among the townsfolk of Kentucky and he probably felt that way in the courtroom with other circuit lawyers and he probably felt that way in the White House while taking counsel with William Seward, Salmon Chase, and the rest of his august cabinet.
The last scene of Young Mr. Lincoln is one of those overtly myth-making gestures that nowadays we'd dismiss as schmaltzy or overdone: having argued his case successfully, Lincoln dons the iconic top-hat and walks up a breezy hill and seems to be proclaimed for greatness by wind and lightning as the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" fade up on the soundtrack. It's a nakedly worshipful moment that modern audiences might be inclined to laugh at; but I'm grateful for this quality that some older films have of stating things outright. There's a rough-hewn and primal strength to Ford's direction here that, I suspect, will outlast many modern attempts to be clever and ironic and above-it-all. Ford is all but saying here that we need larger-than-life heroes -- that we need to elevate certain fortunate (or unfortunate) characters to the level of the superhuman. That Lincoln is one such character (and was already by 1939) is so patently obvious that it gives this sequence, in retrospect, almost the character of a brute statement of unadorned fact.
Yet this is not the best screen Lincoln. The best screen Lincoln was done by Sam Waterston, and he did it twice, in two different ways.
1988's Gore Vidal's Lincoln, a TV miniseries based on Vidal's historical novel about the man during the Civil War, came and went with little fanfare beyond the network marketing campaign that heralded it over two decades ago. But it can be seen now (at time of writing) in its entirety on Hulu.com, and it's worth the three hours to do so. Waterston's take on Lincoln is not only -- by a long stretch -- the best attempt I've yet seen at dramatically interpreting the man, it's the only one I know of that even tries to capture essential aspects of his personality. As adapted from Vidal's novel, this Lincoln is not the "plaster saint" of the $5 bill, but a man of intellectual genius, fierce ambition, ruthless wit, and deeply-ingrained political instinct. The miniseries' script not only shows Lincoln in the usual places -- at the speaker's podium, or in determined conference with his generals and his Cabinet -- but it shows him in the "smoky back rooms" of the political world too; wheeling and dealing with Congressional Republicans, securing votes, twisting arms, even covering up the odd scandal. The cumulative effect of this characterization is impressive: Lincoln emerges as an essentially political animal, but also perhaps the most intelligent person in the country at that moment, capable of perceiving before anyone else what the Civil War was about, and then articulating it, and then shaping it to his own ends. He's presented as both politico and prophet, a character of fearsome complexity.
This is a demanding role and only a virtuoso actor would dare to take it on. Fortunately, Waterston, besides resembling Lincoln physically (albeit not so strongly as Fonda did), has the chops to handle it. I've liked Waterston from the moment I saw him in Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields, one hand at his waist, inclining forward irritably as he berated Haing S. Ngor's Dith Pran about something or other. His performance as Sidney Schanberg was both pissy and essentially courageous, showing his ability comfortably to contain contradictions within his performances. Five years later, as the almost-blind rabbi in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Waterston exuded an almost saintly reserve, a sort of willfully naive moral clarity. Waterston's cinematic career has shown the many notes he can play on his instrument, but I'm not sure any role has demanded more of him than 1988's television Lincoln. Waterston catches it all: he gets the steely resolve with which Lincoln chooses to discard habeas corpus and if necessary turn Baltimore into an armed camp rather than lose it to the secessionists; the anguish with which he contemplates the death of his 11-year-old son Willie; the spooky prophetic quality with which he states that he will not long outlive the work he has been assigned to do; the fury he feels toward his do-nothing generals, itself an outgrowth of his ability to feel the death of every soldier in the name of the war he is prosecuting. It's a tour-de-force performance and sets a very high bar for Daniel Day-Lewis to overcome, though much inevitably will depend on the quality of the script Spielberg shoots; an actor can't be expected to play scenes that aren't written for him.
Waterston makes plenty of subtle acting choices along the way, but one of the most obvious is his adoption of a high-pitched Western twang which is probably closer to the man's real voice than the stentorian baritone so often associated with him. Besides any documentary authenticity, this accent creates a more present, moment-to-moment, thinking-on-the-spot, and irritable Lincoln -- just the sort of tonic to dissolve some of the plaster off the bust of the sainted man. It also highlights his outsider status within Washington, as a wild and untried Westerner among the likes of Seward and Chase, who were more at ease with the mannerisms of the Eastern elite and who, at least initially, felt themselves more qualified to be Commander-in-Chief.
Waterston's other small-screen take on Lincoln was broadcast two years later, in Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War. Here, the "performance" consisted of no more than reading some of Lincoln's letters and speeches. But the weight and heft of Waterston's voice, its seasoned, conscientious wisdom, remained appropriate for the subject matter. Waterston here abandons the Western twang and reads the documents in his own voice -- appropriate, I suppose, for the more dramatically modest aims of the documentary format, but probably not hitting so close to the mark of what the actual man actually sounded like. I don't know when this voiceover was recorded relative to when Gore Vidal's Lincoln was shot, nor whether the latter at all inspired Burns to cast Waterston in his magnum opus. Regardless, the two television productions amount to about as intelligent and thorough a statement on the Civil War as moving pictures have yet seen, and there's Sam Waterston dead-center in both of them.
Daniel Day-Lewis has his work cut out.