“If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me.”
Twice during Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a collection of glass plate photographs are featured. Lincoln’s son, 10-year-old Tad, is preoccupied with studying these photos, some of which preserve the images of African-American boys close to his own age. When President Lincoln comes upon Tad asleep by the fireplace with a few of these framed plates strewn on the rug near his head, Lincoln holds one of the transparent portraits up to the fire to look at the last thing his son saw before falling asleep. Lincoln’s brow clouds with sorrow. The photos are captioned with the dollar amount the lives of these boys brought at auction. $500 for one child; $700 for another pair, possibly brothers. In a dark room of the White House, firelight flickers, and for a moment the ghostly figures come alive. In dark theaters all across America 150 years later, those images flicker once again, and now it’s Steven Spielberg holding them up to the light.
The power of pictures to touch and inspire us is as old as the caves at Lascaux. But by placing that scene prominently in the first 10 minutes of the film, I think Kushner and Spielberg have provided us a key to understanding part of their intent. Those hazy faces on glass are a fascinating reminder that photography was in its infancy in the mid 19th-Century — and without those early efforts to capture the range of life’s triumphs and tragedies, our own lives would now be deprived of the starkest evidence of those historic events in all their horror and dignity.
The more I think about the significance of that sequence in Lincoln, the more it resonates. Spielberg’s films have always included scenes like these, when someone arrives at a moment of quiet epiphany. He gives us time to watch characters recast their countenance as they absorb what they’re seeing. Of course, many movies have moments like that, but few directors have a patented style so well-known that there’s a distinctive shot named after them. It’s The Spielberg Face. That thousand-yard stare, somehow made intimate. Gazing in awe, or shock, or dread. Or sorrow.