Friday, November 23, 2012

Ghosts in the American Machine: Amistad and Lincoln

“Sir, this war must be waged on the battlefield of righteousness.”
“The what?”
- Amistad

I’ve always had a soft spot for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. I think this puts me in some kind of minority, as that film is often Exhibit A in the Case Against Spielbergian Sanctimony. It certainly has its flaws – John Williams’s score, while lovely, swells a bit too much; Morgan Freeman gets a couple of dreadfully on-the-nose scenes; and “Give…us…free” is probably some sort of low-point for the director. But dear god, there’s so much to love here, too, quite aside from the fact that it’s a gripping, well-told historical-legal epic. Consider: The haunting scenes depicting the terror and bewilderment of the mutinous slaves as their ship comes closer ashore, or the extended flashback to the “Middle Passage” that occurs right at the mid-point of the film and spreads out in all directions like a gaping wound. And it has some of the finest performances Spielberg has ever directed, including Djimon Hounsou’s as the slave leader Cinque. The actor makes clear that the character’s fury is rooted not just in plain old anger or fear but in frustration: Cinque knows what’s going on but, a stranger in a strange land, lacks the language to express himself.

Amistad has been much on my mind lately, because it makes an appropriate companion piece with Lincoln. Not only are both films about slavery, but they’re about the specifically legal and political machinations by which the institution was maintained and then finally dismantled. Together, the two make a uniquely American diptych: They’re about a festering moral crime which needed the wedding of idealism and practicality, along with the efforts of good men, to be righted.

The idea of property haunts both Amistad and Lincoln. An extended part of the former dwells on the fact that, in order to effectively argue the case of the freed Amistad slaves, the Abolitionists Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) and Joadson (Morgan Freeman) have to make common cause with a somewhat duplicitous real estate lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConnaughey, in a foreshadowing of the trio of political operatives who help do the busywork of collecting votes in Lincoln). The two Abolitionists are idealists – they’re willing to wage a losing battle so long as they don't compromise their beliefs. Baldwin wants to win, and tries to convince them to agree that these slaves can be legally thought of as property: “Ignore everything but the pre-eminent issue at hand," he tells them. "The wrongful transfer of stolen goods. Either way, we win.”

During one of the film’s most striking early scenes, various groups lay claim to the slaves in court – the men who say they have purchased them call them “goods,” the Spanish crown that claims jurisdiction over them refers to them as “property,” and two sailors who brought the ship ashore call them “salvage.” It burns the good guys to have to fight a battle on this turf. But they realize that they must, if they are to have any chance of success.

Similarly, in Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) discusses the inherent compromise behind his early efforts, including in the Emancipation Proclamation – that he had to treat slaves as property, as war contraband, in order to legally free them in the Confederate states.  His crusading desire to pass the Thirteenth Amendment comes in part from a need to exorcise the ghost of his own compromise. The work that is then done in Congress – uniting idealist Republicans, moderate fence-sitters, and horse-trading Democrats – is akin to the way that Baldwin, Joadson, and Tappan in the earlier film had to reconcile their various hang-ups over ideological purity.

Both films essentially ask whether morality can be found in deeds or beliefs. Amistad suggests that a moral deed eventually becomes a moral belief: Baldwin starts off as a cynical, albeit likable, ambulance chaser-type, but eventually becomes committed to the cause. In Lincoln, the President’s deep hatred of slavery is well-established beforehand. But there is also the suggestion that, in the country at large, the deed – passing the Amendment – will lead to a greater belief. This becomes explicit in the way Spielberg shoots the actual vote in Congress, in which politicians who were earlier depicted as skeptical or looking out solely for themselves seem to gain a kind of peace and inner light as they vote “Yes” on the Amendment. Note also the cut-aways to the White House during these scenes: It's been a series of shadowy, cold rooms for most of the film, but now it begins to be bathed in an almost celestial light, like a haunted house finally freed of its demons.

It's clear that both Amistad and Lincoln were made by a man who still believes in the power of institutions and of leadership. Indeed, in Amistad, the dearth of Presidential leadership is something much commented upon: Martin Van Buren is depicted as a largely useless man unable and unwilling to make the hard choices required to rid the country of this evil. Even former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), one of the heroes of the film, suggests that he himself failed as a leader during his brief time in office: His final speech to the Supreme Court could be seen as not just an argument for the slaves' freedom but also a reflection on his own inability to lance the boil of slavery. In some ways, Abraham Lincoln is the defining absence in Amistad.

Lincoln and Amistad also have a relationship to one another that resembles that of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. Both Amistad and Schindler are small tales of triumph within broader, unspeakable tragedies. In turn, Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan tackle the rather brutal means by which those tragedies were resolved, if not actually undone. We could even argue that the closing of Lincoln, with its flashback to the President’s second Inaugural address, quite aside from retroactively eulogizing the fallen leader himself, mirrors the end of Saving Private Ryan. For when Lincon says to us, “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” isn’t he saying, in essence, “Earn this”?


  1. I also revisited "Amistad" after "Lincoln," and see that it is worthier than its status as a dismissed sentimental period piece. Though there are still elements that bug me ("Give us free" and the John Williams accompaniment to Adams' final arguments work, but work on me in a way that makes me embarrassed), you're on the money in linking it with "Lincoln," particularly with the "vagaries of legal minutia" element. The set pieces are repeatedly spectacular. Most fascinating for me is the way its global perspective follows multiple empires in various stages of development converging over the Amistad issue, anticipating the invisible geopolitical boundaries in "Munich"'s secret wars.

  2. Schindler's List and Amistad are the films I show to my cynical high school seniors. Every single student watches and is moved by both. One of Mr. Spielberg's gifts is his use of humor, even in these, two of the most intense films I know of. I used to think he gives us a belly laugh, only to rip out our hearts. But, now I think he's balancing. He's such a master at balance in other film elements that I think the humor before heart-ripping is a balance, too.