It’s the end of the year, and that means that the theaters are loaded up with movies that are all vying for spots on Top Ten Lists and those all important Oscars nominations. Films about important things are seen as important films, and if they can crib from important moments in history, then it raises their prestige even more. History is a lot more fun if we can recognize our favorite actors. There are two films currently in release, one American, one Danish, that are both historical dramas focusing on a major moment in their nation’s history: in America’s corner, Lincoln, and representing Denmark, A Royal Affair.
Lincoln concerns itself with the last few months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, and his two largest accomplishments, the passing of the 13th Amendment and the end of the Civil War. A Royal Affair focuses on a nine-year period during the reign of King Christian VII, and how that period would be a major turning point for the history of Denmark and the Age of Enlightenment. The story of Abraham Lincoln is such a crucial part of American History, school kids are taught extensively about the 16th President and his accomplishments. The story of Christian VII, his personal doctor, Johann Struensee, and the affair Struensee had with Christian’s wife, Caroline, is of equal importance to the children of Denmark, and I have been told that this period in Danish history is just as studied and taught in Denmark as Lincoln and the Civil War is in America. How interesting that both films are released at the same time, and both are clear front-runners for their own respective Oscars. To compare the two films seems tailor-made.
Lincoln is the latest film from Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner, based on the book (at least in part) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Kushner is a playwright most famous for Angels in America, and worked with Spielberg in 2005 when he wrote the script for Munich. This collaboration is important, as Lincoln feels more like a filmed play, than it does a Spielberg movie, and thanks to cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, it is a beautifully filmed play. Lincoln is more concerned how a president pushes a piece of legislation through congress than it is with anything else. There are a few closed-door moments between Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and others with his eldest son Robert, (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that hint at the struggles they faced personally, but these are not the moments that are most important to the story. Lincoln the President is what is central here, not Lincoln the husband and father. Most of the drama happens when Lincoln isn’t even on camera as it happens on the floor of the House of Representatives, which makes this kinda like historical C-SPAN. Good thing that it’s Spielberg doing historical C-SPAN, because it could have been torture to sit through 150 minutes of watching men in rooms talk on and on about amendments and the law.
The film begins right after Abraham Lincoln has been elected to his second term with the Civil War winding down. Lincoln concerns himself with what he considers the most important task of his cabinet, ensuring that the 13th Amendment is passed. Lincoln came up as a lawyer and knows that after the war ends, his Emancipation Proclamation that he signed in 1863 will be thrown out in court due to a series of loopholes. He needs an amendment to the constitution to ensure that America will move forward, this time not by the blood and broken backs of slaves, but of free men working together. There is a catch, the amendment would most likely pass in the House if the people thought that it would help end the war, but if the war were to end without the help from the Amendment, then they would not vote for it. Racing against a ticking clock, Lincoln went about doing what he could to buy votes for his amendment. He enlists the help of three lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to offer jobs, money, and titles to anyone who will vote yes on the amendment. A hand is extended to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who is the loudest spoken anti-abolitionist. It all works out in the end, the Amendment passes, and Lincoln goes down in history. Three months later, he is shot by John Wilkes Booth, and dies.
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære), directed by Nikolaj Arcel, script by Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg based on the novel Prinsesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth takes place in the years 1766 to 1775. Caroline of Wales (Alicia Vikander) is sent to Denmark where she is married to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Christian is one in a very long line of mad kings. Not Ivan the Terrible mad, more like goofy grape-nuts mad. He likes to drink, have sex with prostitutes, and appoints his dog to the court. In the 21st Century, we would just call him an ass. He does have one thing that he loves, acting. He adores Shakespeare and while interviewing candidates for the position of Royal Physician, he tosses lines back and forth with one Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) and hires him because he needs someone to play with. Struensee is a kind man and knows that Christian could be a great king with just a touch of guidance, and he gives him that. Struensee is also a man of the Enlightenment and works with Christian to release Denmark from the grip of superstition and fear that the religious order has brought to the country. Christian and Struensee bring a great deal of reform to the country but it is all undercut when it is revealed that Caroline and Struensee had a child behind Christian’s back. Caroline is forced out of Denmark and Struensee pays for it with his life, but it is the son of Caroline and Christian and the daughter of Caroline and Struensee that bring the country back to its proper and enlightened state.
It is hard to watch a movie and not read into it what you want. In my review of Life of Pi, I referred to the work as a Rorschach test, you find what you want in it. America has just undergone a long an exhausting Presidential Election, and here we have two films about the thing we claim we hate the most, politics. Yet, both speak volumes about where we are at today, and one of them isn’t even American. Lincoln shows us the inner workings of American politics, what it actually takes to get something through congress. It takes more than just a good idea that is just, it takes a lot of greased palms. Lincoln had to do it, and so has every other president before and since. Affair gives us insight into the world of Danish Monarchy, which also had a court to report to. The Court is stuck in the Dark Ages and opposes anything that extends a hand to the less fortunate, or more accurately, those who they feel God has turned His back on. A member of the very conservative Court, Ove Høegh-Guldberg (David Dencik) says that he refuses to use state money to build orphanages. He doesn’t want to reward women of lewd behavior a place to ditch their kids. How is it possible that two hundred year later, people are still using this rational to outlaw abortions? Maybe we haven’t come as far as we would like to think we have. Struensee confronts Ove with another telling piece of dialog, “Who is crazier? The King, or someone who believes the Earth was created in six days?”
If Affair is an allegory for how we use the legislature to impose religious or scientific theories, then there is much in Lincoln that seems to speak to how we view homosexuals and their rights in the 21st Century. Kushner finds the allusion between oppression based on race and oppression based on sexual orientation. Representing the opposition to Amendment 13 is Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and in a very telling moment states, “The law shouldn’t make equal those that God does not make equal.” Again, maybe we haven’t come as far as we would like to think we have. If there is one thing that these two films teach us, is that progress may not take as much time as we like to think it does, but it does take men and women who will stop at nothing to right the things that they find wrong.
What motivates the individual to do what they do? In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens has a vested interest in ensuring that the amendment passes, he loves a black woman, and doesn’t see her any different as he. His motivation is personal. Lincoln’s motivation is less personal, but equally moral. A few nights before the vote on the amendment, Lincoln asks his housekeeper, Elizabeth (Gloria Reuben), what she thinks “her people” will do when they are free. I think that this exchange might be the most telling as to who Lincoln really was. There are many scenes in the film that speak to his compassion and justness, but this one shows that Lincoln does not only see black and whites as equals, but he is also curious what will a race of people who have been denied freedom suddenly do when they are granted freedom. In another scene, Lincoln reminds us of Euclid’s work, “Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” This is an inalienable truth that Lincoln learned as a young man and carried with him to the end of his days.
What of Affair, what motivates Struensee, Christian, and Claudia? Love motivates Struensee and Claudia’s affair, but not just carnal love, love for knowledge and literature. Being loved by the people he rules and love from Struensee and Claudia is what motives Christian. Love for science and knowledge is what motivates Struensee to do what he does. Denmark is controlled by oppression and fear. The good doctor knows that if given the chance to prove ourselves, we will. Lincoln thought the same. Struensee knew that if we could release freedom of expression, it could be used for both good and bad. It was, but that was the point in the first place. These beliefs, which we believe to be self-evident, cost him his life. It hurts, he minds, he’s scared as hell, but he knows that it is important. Denmark is more important. Lincoln knew it well. America is more important, freedom for all is more important. A simple idea, a nation where all men are created equal, “shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” He knew that what he believed could cost him his life, and yet he went. To the gallows, they march, those that know. Their lives mean more though. Their lives make millions, and in our hearts, they never die.