Like 1776, But Without the Singing
Actually, that’s not quite fair—I happen to enjoy watching 1776 and its John-Adams-as-Mr.-Feeney approach to history. But perhaps that’s because there’s no one who’s going to leave any movie centered on Adams arguing for his beatification. He was too short, I suppose, and too bald.
Lincoln, on the other hand, is hagiography pure and simple. It was directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, so it will appeal to the masses; and written by Tony Kushner, so it will appeal to those who think their taste somewhat higher class. Daniel Day-Lewis, as always, allows himself to be absorbed wholly into the character he portrays, and he manages to transform the screenplay’s penchant for having Lincoln speak in parables into the nervous habit of a backwoods lawyer rather than the pontificating of an American Christ—but the point of the film is found in the words with which Sally-Field-as-Mary-Lincoln lambastes Tommy-Lee-Jones-as-Thaddeus-Stevens:
How the people love my husband. They flock to see him by the thousands. They will never love you as they love my husband. How hard for you to know that. But how important to remember it.
The movie’s intent is to reinforce and justify what we already know: we love Lincoln, that rumpled demi-god.
Lincoln favors The Thirteenth Amendment (never mentioned without its adjectival number) simply and precisely because he is Lincoln. It is a matter of his nature; there can be no more complexity than that. And while I suppose I can’t reasonably demand that the script have shown engagement with a more recent Pulitzer Prize Lincoln biography, recognition of the existence of Foner’s convincing, compelling, and (now) well-known account of Lincoln’s evolution on the issue of slavery would have led to a more compelling script. Lincoln, that is, was a politician, not a saint—and a damn good one at that, who understood the nuances of pro- and (more importantly) anti-slavery positions. He himself had occupied many of these gradations over the course of his life and career, and (like his advisers) knew how to manipulate and work them.
But nothing of that Lincoln makes it into the film. Instead, Tony Kushner—who will, at best, be remembered like Arthur Miller for having had genius perch on his shoulder just long enough to write one remarkable play—works the keyboard as ham-fistedly as Spielberg’s crisp and squeaky-clean 1865 begins to appear around minute forty-five. Lincoln’s political positions are products of his divinely ordained, unchanging nature; those of Thaddeus Stevens, by romantic interest more than principle; and Congress—well, they’re just craven and money-grubbing. All one needs to do to persuade is to offer a patronage position—or a bribe, but a bribe is a touch too unseemly. Would to God that we had been given a presidency, but no Congress! the film seems to lament. Dayeinu! It would have been enough!
Lincoln, that is, is just another pop cultural assent to the cult of the presidency—now so terribly in vogue among the curators of pop culture, what with a young, liberal president in the White House—as opposed to a middle-aged conservative. While Day-Lewis’ Lincoln appears fully aware of the terror of the power he has assumed, the film itself dismisses this notion with a wave of the hand: Lincoln’s concerns about his assumption of power are, with near-immediacy, put into the mouth of the anti-Lincoln, pro-slavery Congressman Fernando Wood (D-NY), where they give way seamlessly to the rhetoric of racism.
And so, after weeks of anticipation of what this movie will tell us about today and President Obama’s crises, we read conclusions like:
One has to assume that President Obama will soon take the opportunity to see Lincoln. If he does, we can hope that the film reminds him that he is clothed with immense power, and he should continue to use it in ways that will prove untidy in the moment, but wise in the rear-view mirror of history.
I can still remember the days when words like these, whispered in the ear of another American president, unleashed a clamor of fury and pontificating. But when there is important legislation at stake—health care reform, for example—a critique of the dark underbelly of executive power is an option only for those who would stand against progress, or those who will nonetheless continue to wield the very power they pretend to critique. We should pay no attention as the wars begun and ended without Congressional consultation (let alone approval), American citizens executed without trial or warrant, and Orwellian “extraordinary rendition” are covered over like so many amputated limbs.
If it reflects contemporary politics at all, Lincoln is an assertion of the necessity of deference before presidential power and prerogative rather than a call for a genuinely democratic or constitutional approach to the crafting of legislation. There are no legitimately alternative views to the president’s; there are merely obstacles to be overcome. Legislation must be crafted in the manner of the President—because the President is strong and good, while Cabinet-level dissenters and Congress (even—especially, the vocal opposition, that collective of “hicks and hacks”) are craven and weak.
But if you don’t care for this reason to object to Lincoln, I’ll end with a simpler one: it’s a terribly mediocre film, not at all worth the ten dollars you’re expected to shill out for a ticket. You’d do better to buy and spend three hours with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, or Foner’s.