A Very Special Episode of Lincoln

The jarring experience of recognizing so many television actors in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Of the many historical inaccuracies in Lincoln, perhaps the most egregious is its depiction of Washington DC as populated by television character actors. For instance, historians note that Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) did not actually sleep with Lt. Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) from Law and Order. In the big reveal, the two lovers sit upright in bed together, sit-com style. If only Spielberg had pulled the camera back to show Bob Newhart in bed with them, dreaming his Bob Newhart dreams.

This isn’t a complaint; it’s just a description of the experience of watching the guy from The Wire and Breaking Bad (David Costabile) speak two lines of dialogue as Ohio representative James Ashley. Or Fringe baddy and Mad Men English guy Jared Harris waltz around like he’s Ulysses S. Grant. It’s rather jarring. Suddenly I’m thinking about Walter White and Walter Bishop instead of Walt Whitman and the 13th Amendment. I’m just getting into the movie and, hey, there’s the guy from Justified (Walton Goggins). And not one, but two ’80s child-actors: Lukas Haas and Jackie Earl Haley. Look, James Spader (The Office) doing a Beetlejuice impression as a dipsomaniacal lobbyist.

To those of us steeped in a lifetime of American television, the experience of watching Lincoln is a kind of meta-reference-nightmare that will not allow us to awaken to the present moment and just enjoy the film (unless Daniel Day-Lewis is on screen). It’s like flipping through the channel guide in Derrida’s head, if Derrida’s head was a Roku-like device with a guide and we could flip through it.

Lincoln presents itself as a kind of present truth about the past and yet the TV actors yank us out of our reverie and into the ever-present past of television and whatever personal constellation of memories we carry around with us that relate to the previous iterations of these actors. This is especially true when, unlike Spader, the actors do not have the screen time to establish a character separate from their TV identities. They are signs that are never signified, as we used to say in the quad in between strip poker sessions.

David Costabile’s big line, “Yes. But how?” is a set-up for Day-Lewis as Lincoln to take off in flights of wonderful dialog and grade-A acting:

James Ashley: Yes. But how?
Abraham Lincoln: Buzzard’s guts, man! I am the President of the United States of America! Clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.


lincoln_harrisDavid Costabile and Jared Harris
lincoln_gogginsWalton Groggins

During that moment, I was thinking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course. Because whenever David Costabile appears (and he appears often these days) I think of Saul Rubinek. The two actors share a curly-haired, portly-but-not-fat, smart-smarmy-unctuous-superior look while at the same time being likable, very good actors. In the long oeuvre of Saul Rubinek (Warehouse 13), his shining moment was as an interstellar aesthete in the ST:TNG episode “The Most Toys.” In “The Most Toys” Mr. Rubinek attempts to collect Data (the android). But Data won’t be collected. He is a sentient being and therefore not for sale. So, as I sat in the multiplex during a Wednesday matinee filled with retirees, the “signifier” of David Costabile signified an unintended yet serendipitous meaning. The theme of “The Most Toys” is, in fact, the theme of Lincoln. Mr. Costabile never became James Ashley for me. He became something much more — a touchstone of associations that took me out of the movie and yet at the same time offered interesting connections, none of them intentional.

This is the semiotic danger of populating your movie with recognizable television actors in small roles.

Better to go the route of Zero Dark Thirty and cast relative unknowns in the small parts — oh, wait, who is that in the elevator? It’s time-traveling, immortal bi-sexual Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood (John Barrowman). Upon seeing him my wife and I both gasped, turned to each other, and said “Captain Jack!” We exited Zero Dark Thirty wondering about the efficacy of torture, the veracity of the truth presented in the film, and when, if ever, they will make another season of Torchwood.

Best Pictures is a short series about this year’s Academy Award-nominated films.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.