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Lincoln

[ 76 ] December 23, 2012 |

I finally saw Lincoln last night. I doubt what I have is to say is anything others haven’t verbalized. But a couple quick points. As a film, it’s classic Spielberg. Well made entertainment in the broad and often obvious populism of D.W. Griffith and John Ford. Several eye-rolling lines, BIG music. It’s also hard to believe that someone could make a film about the end of slavery in 2012 and neglect to have a single vital African-American character, but it’s Spielberg so there we have it. On the other hand, the film does do a good job on focusing on the political machinations of the 13th Amendment, with generally very good casting, pacing, and editing. Daniel Day-Lewis is always good, David Strathairn seems destined to play Forces for Good through his career but he does it well, Tommie Lee Jones was sufficiently cranky as Thaddeus Stevens. The movie definitely should have finished 20 minutes earlier, with Stevens in bed with his black partner. This would have avoided the pointless march through time to Lincoln’s assassination, though there was something so old-school Fordian about how it ended with Lincoln’s second inaugural address that it was hard not to feel a little warm about it.

What really matters here though is Spielberg’s point about politics. He so obviously wants to give today’s Americans a lesson on how to GET THINGS DONE IN WASHINGTON! So here’s how you do it. First, 35% of the country secedes. Every single one of the politicians from the seceding states opposes your platform. Without that 35% of the nation, you have a bare legislative majority that allows you to pass legislation if you hold your fractious party together. For situations that need a supermajority, you need your president going into a sort of mid 19th century Green Lanternism on politicians, combining LBJ style physicality with endless yarn spinning tales of life in Illinois and an appeal to morality that will convince them to Do The Right Thing. You also need the kind of patronage positions to buy off your opponents that mercifully began to end after the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883. And then, with luck, you can get your supermajority.

In other words, Spielberg’s film has absolutely nothing useful to say about modern political life.

Comments (76)

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  1. Scott P. says:

    It’s not a film about the end of slavery. It’s a film about Lincoln.Lots of people seem to be missing this.

  2. dp says:

    Sure it said something useful — politicians often (always?) have to do distasteful things to accomplish anything.

    As for the glaring lack of major African-American characters, to the extent the film is about the politics of the 13th Amendment passage, you have to remember that there weren’t any African-American politicians in 1865. I guess they could have grafted in a Frederick Douglass speech or something, but it’s not like there were hordes of African-American lobbyists twisting the Democrats’ arms, huh?

  3. ALAN G KAUFMAN says:

    HOW Lincoln did it is less important than WHAT he did. As General Patton once said, tell people what to do and not how, and they’ll amaze you with their ingenuity. “Lincoln” suggests to the modern politician WHAT to do: Use the power of the office of the President to drive paradigm changing legislation. HOW Lincoln did it is instructive, but as you point out, the “battlespace” in which he operated is not the same as it is today. So, as our problems are new, so must we think anew…..

  4. Joe says:

    obvious populism of D.W. Griffith

    wonder how he would have liked the film

  5. Mister Harvest says:

    The valuable thing about Lincoln is that it repeats a single message over and over again: “The Civil War was about slavery.”

    Sadly, even in 2012, that’s a message that needs repeating.

  6. jeer9 says:

    I actually thought all the backroom deal-making and the reining in of high-minded impractical idealism in favor of a pragmatic, close counting of votes approach to be rather Obamaesque.

    And for a long film, I didn’t once look at my watch.

  7. That last point is a little reductive. Of course as a guide for how Washington politics work the movie’s less than useless but the basic “don’t let idealism become the enemy of progress” is a general point about politics in the abstract that isn’t confined to any particular system or situation.

    I don’t think it’s much of a point, but it is “something useful to say about modern political life.”

    • penpen says:

      I actually think it’s a great and valuable point which the film makes very well, and which unfortunately bears repeating in the current climate:

      It takes a historical issue (abolition) where even the smarmiest centrists and politically unengaged above-it-alls readily acknowledge, a priori, that the correct policy outcome was reached, and then shoves in those people’s faces over and over the dirty dealing and underhanded tactics required for reaching that outcome.

      Spielberg could do a spiritual sequel “LBJ” about passage of the Civil Rights Act, but sadly/embarrassingly, I doubt passage of the CRA would be able to bank on the same level of widespread a priori approval.

      • Njorl says:

        Or he could do a movie about a similar process reaching the Kansas Nebraska act. Show pragmatism and compromise preserving slavery, creating anarchy and merely delaying the start of the civil war.

  8. Murc says:

    It’s also hard to believe that someone could make a film about the end of slavery in 2012 and neglect to have a single vital African-American character

    Er, is this what the film was about? I thought it was about the role Lincoln played in ending slavery vis-a-vis the political process. that’s the impression I got on watching it, anyway.

    And if I recall correctly, Lincoln didn’t work very closely with the black community on that, nor did he have any close black friends or allies in the process. He would often meet with prominent black leaders, but that was because he would often meet with prominent leaders, period.

    You could, of course, put in parallel plotlines detailing the efforts of people like Frederick Douglass taking place at the same time, but then you’re dedicating a huge chunk of your movie about Lincoln to people who 1) aren’t Lincoln, and 2) don’t have much to do with Lincoln, really.

  9. Davis X. Machina says:

    …David Strathairn seems destined to play Forces for Good…

    Strathairn did Lincoln, against Richard Dreyfuss’ Stephen A. Douglas, in the complete recorded-books version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I do like how Richard Dreyfuss so often plays the bad guy politicians. There was the near-Dole in American President, the Roveesque political manager in Sliver City, Al Haig in that TV movie about Reagan’s shooting, Cheney in W. Now Stephen A. Douglas in the recorded books thing.

    • GFW says:

      There are counter-examples though – the third Bourne movie & L.A. Confidential come to mind.

  10. JosephW says:

    “It’s also hard to believe that someone could make a film about the end of slavery in 2012 and neglect to have a single vital African-American character, but it’s Spielberg so there we have it.”

    Well, it’s also a bit more historical in its scope, as well. There doesn’t seem to be any historical record of Lincoln’s having any close friendships with any African-Americans. It also does bear reminding that “freeing the slaves” was NEVER a major factor in Lincoln’s actual Presidency–Lincoln was a strong supporter of the “status quo” which meant keeping the existing slave vs free state “borders” as they were, something that rankled the slaveowners who, under the then-current arrangement, had little room to expand. The Emancipation Proclamation, additionally, was more of a psychological weapon since it specifically exempted all Confederate territory that was in Union hands at the time the Proclamation would take effect (it also just happened to exempt the Union’s FOUR slave-holding states). The Proclamation’s greatest effect was as propaganda, designed to rally BRITISH and FRENCH citizens to get their governments to stop supporting the slave-owning CSA (the Brits had abolished slavery in 1834 albeit with some weird, though temporary, loopholes in the law and the French had abolished slavery a decade later but both countries had, like the US, officially ended the “slave trade” before actual abolition).

    (Note: None of the above is an argument that the Civil War wasn’t–at its heart–about slavery. What it WAS arguing was that Lincoln was NOT this great anti-slave advocate that’s developed in the post-death mythologizing. It should be remembered that there were a lot of people who didn’t own slaves who supported the idea–read up on the New York City Draft Riots to see how many Northerners felt about freeing the slaves–and the era’s reality was that many “paid” laborers had lives that were little better than slave conditions with 12 hour workdays, 6 days a week, crowded workplaces, wages that barely paid the most basic of needs.)

    Now, if you want an Abe Lincoln movie that features a “vital African-American character,” look no further than this year’s earlier Lincoln film, “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” Not only does Lincoln’s anti-slavery attitude show up when he’s a young boy–he intervenes when an African-American slave boy is being beaten–but that slave boy becomes one of Lincoln’s closest friends and advisors. Of course, that film is a “fantasy” so it had a little more leeway in playing with historical reality.

    • jon says:

      Right. The Civil War primarily about the South’s ability to maintain circumstances favorable to their dominant industries. Lincoln was first concerned with maintaining the United States, including all of the states present at his election. He was secondarily and tertially concerned with ending slavery, even though he was an early covert to Republicanism and to abolitionism. He gravitated to the Emancipation Proclamation, in part to make sense of what had already occurred in areas of military administration (in part limiting the amount of abolition enforced), as a matter of good politics, to solidify foreign relations, and to further dispirit and sow discord within the South.

      As with many abolitionists, Lincoln championed the need for emancipation of the black race, but had no particular affection for blacks as individuals. (Often noted in distinction to many Southerners who admired black individuals, but despised the race.) Lincoln did not see blacks as the equals to whites in any way, and hoped to encourage the large scale emigration of blacks back to Africa or elsewhere following the Civil War, because he didn’t think that blacks and whites could succeed in proximity in the US.

      The NYC Draft Riots weren’t so much about racism (though that certainly existed), as about immigrants and poor New Yorker’s feeling exploited by continuing recruitment drives, and the ability of the wealthy to buy their way out of service.

    • CBrinton says:

      JosephW: “Lincoln was a strong supporter of the “status quo” which meant keeping the existing slave vs free state “borders” as they were, something that rankled the slaveowners who, under the then-current arrangement, had little room to expand.”

      Not allowing slave expansion was, to the slavocrats, emphatically NOT the status quo. They believed the status quo, as defined in Dred Scott, was for all the western territories to be open to slavery. The Republican party was directly opposed to this.

      JosephW: “The Emancipation Proclamation, additionally, was more of a psychological weapon since it specifically exempted all Confederate territory that was in Union hands at the time the Proclamation would take effect . . .”

      False. The Emancipation Proclamation freed thousands of slaves the day it went into effect; the US Army controlled extensive territories on January 1, 1863 which were not exempted from immediate emancipation.

      Examples: Parts of Northern Virginia (beyond the counties exempted), union-occupied coastal islands in the Carolinas, and bits of northern Mississippi.

      JosephW: “(it also just happened to exempt the Union’s FOUR slave-holding states).”

      FIVE, actually (Maryland, Delaware, [the Unionist government of] Virginia, Kentucky, and [a lot of] Tennessee.

  11. Andy says:

    Be careful Erik, I’m sure some wingnut will say this soon

    “Prof. Loomis says that “it was hard not to feel a little warm about” the lead up to Lincoln’s assassination. Please call URI and let them know how you feel about this”

  12. One of the Blue says:

    One thing I have to say about the progressive critical comments about Lincoln that’s missing is the vital role of the Northern public’s support of African American rights. Without that slavery would not have ended, even given the slaves’ own effective revolt during the Civil War against that vile institution.

    Don’t believe me? Look at the story of the Nat Turner insurrection, various other slave revolts, and finally the John Brown raid, all of which died lonely miserable deaths, and caused lonely miserable deaths for many if not almost all of the participants.

    Then look at what happened when Northern support for African American rights evaporated in the 1870′s. Jim Crow and the quasi-slavery of the sharecropper system were locked in.

    People here are right to emphasize the key role of African Americans in their own liberation and to criticize the lack of focus on it in mainstream discourse.

    But our side should neither forget nor belittle the difficult and painful step away from the bone racist norm the Northern public (and its politicians) took during the war, and on into the end of the 1860′s.

    If the slaves had not rejected slavery during the war, slavery would not have ended. But without the support of the Northern public and its politicians that end likely would only have been temporary. As it was, when support was withdrawn a few years later, near-slavery became the norm, though because of African American resistance, it took 20-30 additional years to fully lock it in.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      No question.

      As I tell my students, the African-American civil rights movement has extended from 1619 until 2012. There’s been all of 2 times in American history when enough whites cared to actually create legal codes that codified those rights–between 1865 and 1873 and between 1954 and 1965 (more or less).

      Obviously today that story is a bit more complicated because we have a black president but we also are in absolutely no position to create a Third Reconstruction that would address the economic inequalities between the races.

  13. Leeds man says:

    David Strathairn seems destined to play Forces for Good through his career

    Woulda been my choice to play Aragorn.

  14. jon says:

    I was more disconcerted by what I think is an historical fabrication, or a spatial collapsing, of the Confederate delegation that is penned up on the riverboat during Congressional debate on the Thirteenth Amendment.

    As for the role of blacks in the movie, well, there wasn’t a big role for blacks in society or politics in the Civil War era. Northern society, as well as that of the South, was profoundly racist and segregated. If the movie had focused on Seward, there may have been cause to feature his more extensive personal relations with notable blacks, as well as his personal actions in their support and against slavery.

    As it was, I found the opening scene, where Lincoln is watching troops process at a railhead to be somewhat preposterous, particularly as it features white soldiers unable to recount the Gettysburg Address, and the black soldiers stepping in – as moving as that was. If you watched the movie again, I think you might see how slyly blacks populate the movie, mostly on the fringe and in supporting roles, but woven throughout all of the sets and events.

    • pete says:

      I agree. The opening was hokey as anything, but it sort of works as a way of putting black soldiers right up front, setting the stage, with them being both articulate (reciting the Gettysburg Address! Gimme a break) and also fighters, and later corpses. The way black servants were shown as witnesses throughout was indeed telling. I like the idea of their “slyly populating” the movie; it’s reminiscent of “their role” in society. And at least the political focus is on ending slavery. One-and-a-half thumbs up, maybe a knuckle more.

    • JoyfulA says:

      About the North being racist and segregated, I learned something interesting in 1800s census data. (My mother has been an avid amateur genealogist, and the facts on the ground have left me with many history puzzles.) Many small towns in the rural Pennsylvania counties of my mother’s interest have several Negro and/or Mulatto residents listed; typically, it looks like one or two families. Oral history tells me of a black blacksmith and a black barber.

      I wonder how this situation came about. Former slaves from the 1700s? Freedmen or escapees with a skill happening into a village that needed someone with that skill? Anybody know?

      • jon says:

        I don’t know about PA specifically. Most likely freedmen and ex slaves. Also random dispersion, much like you can find a Chinese restaurant in many towns without much of a Chinese population. And sometimes economic niches are developed out of necessity. Many would have been slaves in the town or area before being freed. Fugitives needed either to be in very remote areas or in larger towns and cities where there was a society of free blacks to blend into and be supported by.

        The fugitive slave laws were very serious things, and plenty of slave catchers on the move. The Underground Railroad developed to get slaves away from where they would be at risk, and in many places there was only a single farm, family, person, or congregation that could give momentary sanctuary.

    • Joe says:

      Lincoln and Seward did meet a Confederate delegation [Hampton Roads Peace Conference of February 3, 1865] that included the v.p. of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. The 13A was discussed. Battle Cry of Freedom has one account of the events. I have not seen the film so some degree of dramatic license could have been used here.

  15. One of the Blue says:

    One other comment; this about Lincoln the man. As far as I know he is the only president of the United States who had during a legal career very substantial criminal defense experience and was never a prosecutor. And he probably is one of very few politicians in U.S. history to emphasize that side of his experience during his political career.

    The one such anecdote shown in the movie is about a female client of his convicted of murder (with substantial extenuating circumstances to be sure) whom he convinced to jump bail prior to sentencing. I’ve seen this anecdote attested elsewhere.

    Could one of us realistically even imagine a contemporary U.S. politician telling that kind of story? These days a defense lawyer who pulled something like this would be disbarred, the person’s career over, extenuating circumstances or no.

  16. wengler says:

    Good for a Spielberg movie would have sufficed.

  17. atheist says:

    In other words, Spielberg’s film has absolutely nothing useful to say about modern political life.

    Damn good point.

  18. Halloween Jack says:

    In other words, Spielberg’s film has absolutely nothing useful to say about modern political life.

    Except, of course, about the idea that you get change done with the Congress that you have, not the one that you wish you had, something that still seems to escape people who think that Obama had a snowball’s chance in hell of passing single payer health care. And, of course, the Confederacy was still obviously a factor in Union politics. (Going at it the other way, you could say that “modern political life” has changed sufficiently since FDR’s time, or JFK’s, or Reagan’s, or even Bill Clinton’s, to ignore any potential lessons from those eras, if you like.)

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