November 20, 2012 [Lincoln]

Among his observations of Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted "Uncle Abe's" "boyish cheerfulness" in telling a story or delivering a witty line: "When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs." Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis do the same with Lincoln: despite the wrangling, the anguish, the horror of having to grind out politics during slaughter, they find Lincoln's sharp and openhearted mind with great satisfaction—and ask us to laugh with him, the survivor's laugh, startled that one is still alive despite all that calamity, and suddenly realizing the truth of bravery, that you have to earn it, the hardest labor of all.

Already, they're Oscar-buzzing about Argo, a movie about movies—plus it's patriotic in a non-denominational way. And, like Lincoln, it depends on engrossing us with the process, since history has already told us the punchline. But Lincoln made me wonder how it was going to end, as though I was not watching dramatized facts but listening to one of Lincoln's illustrative stories—one that, even as he told it, became proverbial. As Emerson also notes in his eulogy, "I am sure if this man had ruled in a period of less facility of printing, he would have become mythological in a very few years, like Aesop." And of course Emerson was wrong: the man did become mythological. I haven't visited the Lincoln Memorial in twenty years or so, but I still recall how quiet everyone grew in there, tourist-chatter minimized in front of that saddest face in American politics. Lincoln knows that look, and Day-Lewis reproduces it with uncanny mimetic power—but there's a light in there, too, one whose purpose is moral, and that wants to shine "with immense power"—and not just at that moment, but along the long decades, now centuries, since he finagled the Amendment to the Constitution despite the Constitution, all the while showing his teeth and laughing.


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