Article 25

Lincoln Agonistes

In Uncategorized on 01/19/2013 at 1:55 pm

Image

Funny that they called him ‘Honest Abe’

By Gregory Flannery

 

Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Lincoln, doesn’t portray the Great Emancipator of American myth. This Lincoln is a schemer, a man given to angry outbursts, the kind of guy who tells coarse jokes so long and so often that some get tired of hearing them.

This is, inevitably, Abraham Lincoln rendered in such a way that even his vices seem virtuous. When he browbeats his poor wife, it seems she deserves it. When he slaps his son hard in the face for disrespecting his mother, didn’t he ask for it?

Face it. There is no way to convey a Father Abraham who is not heroic. Martyrdom gilds even the most flawed of presidents. Witness John F. Kennedy.

One of the film’s strengths is that it shows not only Lincoln’s personal flaws but, more important, his abuse of executive power. We see Lincoln as we never have before, damned on the floors of Congress as a dictator. He did, after all, suspend habeas corpus, that most fundamental of human rights, among other constitutional abuses. And we see Lincoln defending his power grab in a convoluted legal argument that, though far more folksy, smacks of the kind of thing we’d expect of Nixon or Cheney.

No wonder Spielberg postponed the release of Lincoln lest it seem he were trying to influence the 2012 presidential election. The risk wasn’t that anyone would conflate Barack Obama with Lincoln but rather that this movie would be perceived as a rallying cry for African Americans and therefore for the Democratic Party – a delicious irony, given that Lincoln was a Republican. There was no hazard that the movie would have any real electoral influence, but the timing could have politicized the film and diminished its reach.

The wonder of Lincoln is that the more badly the 16th president (played by Daniel Day Lewis) behaves, the more godly he seems. Annoyed that aides haven’t yet succeeded in securing passage of the 13th Amendment, banning slavery, he bellows, “Get the hell out of here!” When Lincoln finally accedes to his son’s demand to join the Union Army, the president berates his wife (played by Sally Fields) for fretting that this son would die in the war, after they’d already lost a son to typhoid fever. Lincoln leaves the First Lady sobbing on the floor, pronouncing her selfish grief too heavy a burden for such a great man. He is busy, after all.

The film includes only two brief battle scenes. The first is a brutal close-up of hand-to-hand combat, the second a distant view of Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital, under Union bombardment. More startling is the burial of severed limbs at a Union military hospital. The film is not about the Civil War. Nor is it about Lincoln’s assassination, which is not depicted, a gamble by Spielberg that nicely keeps the focus on the larger message.

The film is not a biography; it covers only the last four months of Lincoln’s life.

The film is not history. The opening scene is preposterous, with a black soldier complaining to the Commander-in-Chief about unequal pay, then proceeding to quote the Gettysburg Address. Even if the soldier were one of the few former slaves able to read, the speech was not well regarded nor much quoted until at least 10 years later, according to historian Gabor Boritt.

Ribald jokes about the English are always in season, of course. Lincoln asks why someone put a portrait of George Washington in a London loo. Because it’s the best way to scare the shit out of a Brit.

The film is an homage to the principles that Americans hold dearest and which have little hold in contemporary life: A pauper can become president, and equality is worth dying for.

More to the point, equality is worth cheating for. In this case, Lincoln engineers passage of the 13th Amendment by bribing lame-duck members of Congress, promising patronage jobs in exchange for their votes.

Throw in some histrionics by Tommy Lee Jones, playing Sen. Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans (if you can imagine anyone calling himself such a thing) and you have a movie both entertaining and edifying, in the way that a good story can evoke something higher within us.

Doing good is complicated. Look at Lincoln.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: