Part of the power of Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln comes from screenwriter Tony Kushner’s skill at navigating the line between history and fiction. He followed the example of James Agee, the novelist and film critic who wrote five half-hour teleplays on Lincoln for the CBS program “Omnibus” in 1952-1953. Agee laid down the principle of “reasonable conjecture” to guide the dramatist in creating a gripping story that brought Lincoln alive on the screen.
Agee defined “reasonable conjecture” as speculation based on facts, but not fenced in by them. Getting at the deepest truths about Lincoln required both dramatic license and dramatic discipline: familiarizing yourself with the available facts before rearranging them and supplementing them to make the story work. Invented scenes and dialogue were justified if they contravened no known facts and tried to capture the life of Lincoln as he’d lived it.
In 1955, “Omnibus” aired “Mr. Lincoln,” a one-hour abridgement of Agee’s five films. (The hour is available on DVD from The Archive of American Television.) The first scene shows the principle of “reasonable conjecture” in action. It’s April 10, 1865, and we find ourselves inside the sun-drenched Washington, D.C., studio of photographer Alexander Gardner. The film camera is focused on its ancestor, Gardner’s studio camera perched atop its tripod.
We see actor Royal Dano from the back as Gardner prepares his shot, joking about how the Appomattox surrender has made Lincoln do something for the first time: smile for a photographer. Gradually the “Omnibus” camera zooms in on the studio camera, passing by Lincoln’s shoulder as Gardner instructs him to turn his head slightly to the right. Gardner removes the lens cap, and we see what he sees: the ever so slight grin of contentment that the real Lincoln did allow Gardner to capture in the “cracked plate” photo of February 5, 1865.
This dialogue between Lincoln and Gardner is a fiction, but a fiction designed to expose a truth: the scores of photos we have of Lincoln miscommunicate his character. They make him severe and solemn. Long exposure times ruled out capturing his affability, not to speak of his hilarity.
By lingering on Gardner’s camera, and first showing Lincoln’s face as seen through the lens, Agee’s film addresses a second truth. Photographs have decisively shaped our awareness of him. Those of us born in Agee’s era (he died in 1955) almost certainly encountered Lincoln first through iconic images of wisdom, resilience, and patience, not through stories about his everyday human experiences.
It still takes a lot of convincing for many of us to believe that he ever missed the boat, gave up, lost his temper, or behaved as anything less than a perspicacious saint. (Could he possibly have slapped his son Robert across the face, as Kushner’s script has it? Never! Could he have sunk into a depression so deep that he thought he had caused Ann Rutledge’s death, as Agee’s film has it? Impossible!)
Spielberg’s Lincoln follows the lead of Agee’s “Mr. Lincoln” by introducing the star of the show from behind, and then moving the camera slowly past his shoulder before cutting to a front view of Lincoln sitting before us. Daniel Day-Lewis is oddly situated, alone on a platform (perhaps a reviewing stand) as a few dozen soldiers mingle nearby before pushing off.
We expect Lincoln, perched on his wooden pedestal, to be the main speaker in this scene, but Kushner makes him the listener, as two young white soldiers and one black soldier recite portions of his year-old Gettysburg Address to him. This exchange never happened. But Kushner does double duty with it. Lincoln is rattled by hearing his exact words spoken by the white soldiers. He tries to make them stop, embarrassed by the memorized adulation.
Like Agee with the photograph, Kushner seems to be telling us viewers to let Lincoln come down from the pedestal we’ve placed him on. We’re so busy venerating his image and his words that we’ve forgotten about the man. It’s time to examine the actual emancipator. As the black soldier finishes the recitation, speaking of “a new birth of freedom,” Lincoln is moved by his own words. He hears the judgment in them. He’s being challenged, not routinely praised.
Kushner shows he’ll also examine the man in relation to his wife. The second Lincoln scene in his script mirrors the second scene in Agee’s. They both put Mary and Abraham in a small, warmly lit White House room on an evening in 1865. They’re relaxing together until conversation turns to an alarming dream Abraham has had. Agee’s Lincoln recounts his (apocryphal) dead-president-in-the-White-House dream. Kushner’s Lincoln tells the (factual) fast-moving-ship dream. (See my post on “Lincoln’s Dreams, Authentic and Inauthentic,” Jan. 10, 2011, for the content of the dreams.)
Both authors invent a fictional tête-à-tête to disclose a basic truth about Abraham and Mary. Each of them took dreams very seriously as hints of what might happen. Kushner goes beyond the facts in tying the ship dream to the 13th amendment (at least in Mary’s mind), but in doing so he brings out the common sensibility of two people usually thought of as opposites: crazy, impatient Mary, and rational, long-suffering Abraham.
Dreams helped Mary and Abraham establish their intimacy. As she does in Kushner’s scene, Mary appears in real life to have taken on some of Abraham’s anxiety about his dreams. Her readiness to absorb some of his worries let them feel close. And that closeness gave him much-needed support as he got back to the daily grind of saving the union and advancing freedom for all.