Let’s get to the point, Abraham Lincoln was a great president – along with Franklin Roosevelt perhaps the most gifted to lead the nation – and Steven Spielberg’s new epic Lincoln is a great film.
To be honest, in spite of the wave of positive press about Lincoln, I approached the movie with some trepidation. No one can doubt Spielberg’s skills as a director – the amazing casts he assembles, his brilliant integration of onscreen action and musical score, or his timing and slick skills as an editor. His films almost always pack visual punch, contain memorable performances and dialogue, and at some point hit powerful emotional buttons.
But Spielberg is no historian. In spite of an almost overwhelmingly shocking and moving opening half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, that film became muddled in tone and often seemed more like a movie about other movies, a compilation of war flick clichés and stock characters, rather than an honest reflection on the violence and contradictory meanings of war. Schindler’s List ranks as one of the great movies of all time, but even that film is structured around a movie cliché extant since the 1940s – that of the heroic “good German,” and Spielberg can’t resist wringing a Hollywood happy ending out of even this unremitting Nazi horror show.
What most alarmed me before I saw Lincoln were the words of screenwriter Tony Kushner before the film’s release. Kushner stands as one of the giants of modern theater, a playwright of Shakespearean ambition. His stage epic, Angels in America, radiates with the writer’s decency and acerbic wit. His depictions of Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man, Roy Cohn, and his nemesis, Ethel Rosenberg, provide two of the most memorable stage characters in the last century. Angels captured the horror of the AIDS epidemic and the dignity of that plague’s victims, without being mawkish. It was smart, heartbreaking and funny all at once.
Unfortunately, listening to Kushner interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air, I began to dread what historical horrors his screenplay for Lincoln might have wrought. Kushner told the guest host that one of the tragedies of Lincoln’s assassination was that Lincoln would have been merciful to the South, meaning that all the animosity and racial violence that plagued the region after the Civil War might not have happened.
Oh great, I thought, some more Lost Cause fable- making. The myth of Southern slave owners as the victims of the Civil War informed Hollywood’s first great, and execrably racist, epic The Birth of a Nation, continued through Gone With The Wind, and wormed its way through countless lesser Blue-and-Gray potboilers. I had trouble figuring out why a smart, gay New Yorker like Kushner would fall for such moonlight-and-magnolias balderdash.
This mythology is not just bad history; it’s a pernicious lie. While President Lincoln did favor leniency towards the South, and died before he could implement his plans for Reconstruction, leniency is exactly what the former Confederacy got for a year under Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson. Pardons showered upon former Confederate leaders who had committed treason by seceding and who by starting the Civil War plunged the nation into a bloodbath that historians now estimate killed as many as three-quarters of a million people. President Andrew Johnson asked only that Southerners acknowledge the abolition of slavery and not pay back the financiers who bankrolled the Confederacy. Northerners forgave Southerners. Southerners, however, never forgave Northerners for winning the war, nor black people for gaining freedom. The white South responded to this unprecedented post-war generosity with a campaign of terror and murder against African Americans and their allies in the South. They launched an evil attempt to re-impose slavery through the “black codes.” White Southerners were not the victims, but the relentless, vengeful victimizers. Only one figure in Dixie was executed by the Union. He was a pathetic German immigrant who ran the infamous Andersonville, Ga., POW camp where thousands of Union prisoners died of starvation, mistreatment and disease. He was hanged for his crimes. Other Confederate traitors eventually got universities and highways named after them.
Going to the theater Friday night, I thought I would be subjected to Confederate apologia layered over a simplistic, wooden tale of American exceptionalism. I feared I would see a corny exercise using a great past leader to tell Americans everything they wanted to hear about themselves. I thought I would be subjected to a movie that would also demonize, as had so many films in the past, dissenters such as abolitionists who had the courage to directly face the moral rot at the nation’s core.
Suffice it to say, I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was moved, often to tears, by Spielberg and Kushner’s film. This is no Dixie apologia, but a subtle tale of how great moral purposes can be achieved through the tawdry sausage-making that is the lifeblood of politics. There are no dashing Confederate cavaliers here, no Rhett Butlers redux. The Southerner with the most screen time is Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who at the start of the Civil War exuberantly proclaimed that the Southern “nation” was the first “founded . . . upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
In this movie Stephens, played expertly by Jackie Earl Haley, is an oily slave-owner-as-vulture-capitalist. Stephens takes part in a Southern “peace commission” that meets with General Grant and then with Lincoln to see if an early end to the war can be negotiated. Stephens will agree to peace only if Southern states can be hastily reintroduced to the Union in order to block from ratification the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment abolishing slavery. Rebuffed by Lincoln when he makes this demand, Stephens icily insists that the Confederate government will continue to fight a war the Confederacy already knows it has lost in the vain hope that the super-wealthy can keep their grip on their human property. Stephens would sooner burn down the entire country than lose any of his power or any of his suffering, living, breathing chattel. As Stephens, Haley turns in a memorable performance in a minor role, a portrait of the sociopathic top 1 percent of Confederate society in its corrupt dotage. Lincoln is a movie full of such performances.
Meanwhile, the Confederates’ Northern allies in the Democratic Party, played by such talented screen veterans as James Spader, come off as less competent and maybe less ethical versions of the mob henchmen in The Sopranos. No one seeing this film will want to go back to dear old Dixie. Spielberg has indeed traveled far from the pro-Southern whitewash of Gone With the Wind.
The film abounds in important historical details, such as the way it depicts the importance of technology in the Civil War – particularly the telegraph lines that kept Washington, D.C. in touch with its diplomatic missions to the South and with its army. It captures the way in which white supremacist ideology defined the North as well as the South, and how racial fears divided even the anti-slavery Republicans.
Meanwhile, Daniel Day-Lewis accomplishes the nearly impossible – putting flesh and blood on a person who has been little more than a marble monument our whole lives. Lewis’ Lincoln is a troubled man, barely holding in check suffocating sorrow and a rage at his misfortune, which seeps to the surface in one memorable confrontation with his bitter, often grief-paralyzed wife Mary Todd Lincoln, also played with grace and subtlety by Sally Field. Day-Lewis’ accent sounds authentic, and he makes incredibly smart acting choices. His tall frame is bent throughout, partly so the unusually tall president can speak directly to his cabinet and constituents, but also because of the constant weight of death and sadness bearing down on his prematurely elderly frame.
Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as a weary man who keeps a sense of humor, but who nevertheless tightly drapes himself with a shawl to keep out the chill of impending mortality. He cuts this icon down to human size, making him frail, without diminishing by an ounce his considerable moral gravity. Lewis’s Lincoln, like the real person, is also ironic and possesses a devastating sense of humor. It was striking to listen to a 2012 audience laugh out loud at Lincoln’s jokes and emotionally respond to speeches that had been reduced by American classroom recitations to dusty clichés.
Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Pennsylvania’s abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens commands attention whenever he appears on screen, and Kushner gives him a modern edge. One could imagine Stevens as an MSNBC host as he spews invective at his pro-Southern antagonists who are trying to block the 13th Amendment in the House and as he vents his frustration at Lincoln, whom he sees as a timid and unreliable reformer in an age needing iron-willed revolutionaries.
Jones evokes laughs as he pretentiously thunders at his verbal victims. He is at his most moving and brilliant, however, not when he chews the scenery. At one point, Democrats opposing the 13th Amendment try to trap Stevens by asking if he supports the abolition of slavery because he believes in racial equality. This belief in human equality and dignity, of course, rests deep in Stevens’ soul and has animated his fight for abolition for three decades. As Jones plays the moment, Stevens denies any connection between the 13th Amendment and racial equality, but as Jones delivers the insincere word out of political necessity, one can almost feel the character’s soul splinter between the true believer fighting for a great truth and the politician who stifles his deeply held personal convictions in the name of the greater good. Jones almost vibrates as he makes this struggle, and he breaks the audience’s heart. It’s one of the most memorable acting moments in cinema in years.
Of course, in the long run, on issues of racial equality the Radicals and not Lincoln were right. Spielberg, however, doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard to think that Spielberg didn’t have Barack Obama in mind when he made this film. Obama is another Illinois politician who rose to power in a time of great crisis and ran headlong into an opposition drunk on white supremacy; and who sometimes conceded points to people of questionable motives in order to advance an agenda. Spielberg seems to be saying that the progressives of today are like the so-called Radical Republicans of Lincoln’s time; that both groups sometimes seem willing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. However, Spielberg is a great enough artist to make his slightly-left-of-center political points without being smarmy or insufferable.
Like the man, “Lincoln” the film suffers from some serious flaws. At the beginning of the movie, we meet a pair of black soldiers in the Union Army who are chatting with the president near a battlefront. One soldier in particular already wants to press for black voting rights. Theses soldiers, and their white peers nearby, end up quoting the Gettysburg Address as they exit the film forever. It’s a brief moment when African Americans are central characters, and they end up quoting a white man. There is another African American, played by Gloria Reuben, who is given a few moments in the limelight as Mary Todd Lincoln’s servant and constant companion. She gives a moving speech to Lincoln, urging him to see the battle for the 13th Amendment through to a successful end. Even when she is just a silent witness to the actions of white people, she commands the screen with her grace and intensity. Yet, her words are few and she spends most of her time reacting to whites, not shaping events.
Most of the audience, unaware of Thaddeus Stevens’ 23-year romantic relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith, will be shocked by a scene when the Congressman comes home after the House has approved the 13th Amendment. He hands a copy of it to his lover (played by S. Epatha Mekerson of Law and Order fame) and asks her read it to him as the two lie side by side in bed. This is the first time the film deals with this unconventional relationship and this extraordinary woman, and the moment is fleeting.
That’s it for the black presence in a movie centered on historical events in which African Americans were truly the central players. Escaped slaves who settled on the Northern side of the Mason-Dixon line before the Civil War had humanized African Americans to racists in the North, and helped inspire the abolitionist movement. There was no more powerful or effective abolitionist than Frederick Douglass and no more heroic advocates of black freedom than Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Why are these voices almost completely silent in Lincoln? Yes, the action centers on the White House and the Congress during the debate over the 13th Amendment, and government in the 1860s was an entirely Jim Crow affair. But Mary Todd Lincoln was not exactly a central character in these events, and she commands a large amount of attention in Kushner’s script.
Why are black people in this film mostly left to smile or cry at what white people say or do? Why can’t Douglass or Tubman or Truth or some of the tens of thousands of black Union soldiers be given more time to speak for themselves? This film is no atrocity like Mississippi Burning, which turned the heroic black crusaders of the civil rights movement into passive ciphers and depicted villainous FBI agents -- who tried to hound Martin Luther King, Jr. -- into heroes of the black freedom struggle. But we’re too far along to have a film so dominated by the white voice. Black people make history too, but you would never know it from this film.
Still, while Lincoln is not a documentary, it does an admirable job of capturing the tenor of the 1860s and is pretty close in its depiction of events. The input of celebrity historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose excellent book Team Of Rivals partly inspired this film, undoubtedly helped. Along with Glory, it ranks as one of the best films on the Civil War and certainly outshines earlier hagiographies like Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda. Spielberg has created another great moving Lincoln memorial.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night’ Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.