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  • The Sight and Sound of Lincoln
  • Bradford Vivian (bio)

Abraham Lincoln, Historical Memory, Popular Cinema

See the man. See him as icon, as allegory, as fetish: see the slightly matted hair, the lanky figure seeming to loom over his fellows, the long face framed by gas-lit shadows, the slender limbs articulating so purposefully, the plain suit suited more for publican than president. See the man: the man of the daguerreotype, the gelatin silver print, the photograph, the deep hollows of his eyes therein. See the man who in life is already a ghost, haunted by the dead—by his dead son,1 and by those sacrificed “upon the altar of Freedom”2—as he haunts the corridors of power deep into the night, waking sleepers to save prisoners slated for execution—to forgive them, to pardon and redeem them. This is how the film gives us to see him.

Hear the man. Hear his voice, reedy but warm as they said it was. Hearken to his words. Hear in them the archetypal political vernacular of modern American democracy—an earnest rhetorical agglomerate infused with the rhythms, allusions, and reckonings of biblical aphorisms, Aesop’s fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, Shakespearean soliloquies orated in Western accents, and the diluted wisdom of George, Thomas, Daniel, and Henry.3 Hear in his words the nation as a parable, the Union as a chorus, its Civil War as the “mighty scourge” that God willed to render judgment on “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.”4 This is how the film gives us to hear him, thus to know him.

Let us contemplate the discursive combination—piece of machinery, so to speak—of which the film is a consummate embodiment. Let us consider [End Page 117] what rhetorical, memorial, and psychological work the celluloid machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted.5 It consists in a technology, in a rhetorical techne, of seeing and saying designed to produce a particular cinematic veneer of historical authenticity. The film thus communicates its primary discursive object: the man himself; the man we desire to see, the man we desire to hear.

The film is Capra-esque. If Steven is one of its chief architects, then it must be so.6 The distributions of lightness and darkness that fill its two-dimensional contours show the interior scaffolding of a cumbrous legal, political, and moral mechanism. As in so many Capra films, the play of light throughout this mechanism, the interlocking parts of the federal system, reveal individual acts of courage; yet all the while persistent umbrae cast by that peculiar and powerful interest “localized in the Southern part” of the Union encroach upon and threaten to extinguish such earnest efforts.7 The man patiently oversees, tinkers with, even hesitantly defies this mechanism—the always unevenly lit captain, our captain, steering our ship of state.8 We see him as the acme of available moral insight, prudential judgment, and political prophesy, turning minds as if by some unexampled tactical alchemy to carry the day in the people’s house seven score and eight years ago.9

Why did Steven, Tony, Daniel, and their ilk thus conspire to give us the film as it is?10 “Plainly enough now”:11 because it nimbly and comprehensively invokes a veritable palimpsest of scopophilic desires deeply invested in the prospect of retaining heartfelt connection with the man himself, with something like his essence.12 It is, in this sense, a patent instrument of remediation. It gives us the pleasure of seeing, hearing, and knowing him as we already see, hear, and know him. We recognize him here by the selfsame affect and comportment vividly imprinted on so many photographic surfaces, chiseled into imposing granite or marble presences atop so many plinths in public squares. We already know his words, his lapidary cadences. We have already remembered the rest of his famous address while the young soldier struggles to recall it; we already know his inevitable call for “malice toward none; with charity for all” before he proclaims it.13 Steven, many works ago, directed the actor to read us the legendary letter to Mrs. Bixby.14 He...


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pp. 117-120
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