by Woody Brown
I saw Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s new film starring Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, and “an alarmingly bewigged Tommy Lee Jones,” at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City last week. I liked it very much, but not because it was an inspirational testament to the virtue of the American Way. I think it is supposed to testify to that—to the incontestable prowess of the juggernaut of American democracy—but the message it delivers about our government is actually much more disturbing. The events depicted in Lincoln suggest that the American Way can give us only inertia, stasis, and oppression unless someone circumvents entirely the democratic process.
There are very few black characters in Lincoln, which makes sense. By refusing to depict an imagined black family’s struggles and the fantasy of their solution after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner focus the audience’s attention away from a romantic fantasy and toward a more realistic picture, one that illustrates frankly the fact that the battle over the amendment was waged, fought, and won by wealthy white men. The ringing truth of the inherent equality of all people is drowned out by cries of, “For shame!” and, “Hear, hear!” hollered by generally double-chinned and creatively whiskered white faces.
The film also dispenses with the fantasy that America’s great politicians succeeded because of their inherent correctness, because they remained steadfast and committed to their opinions, no matter how radical, and that that commitment is the reason slavery was abolished. Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is the most ideologically lucid and consistent character, and even he sacrifices his radicalism at the altar of politics in favor of actually achieving a legislative result. (A big NB here for readers who rail against Obama for "not achieving more" with his plan for healthcare reform.) Much of Lincoln follows the sloppy travails of three mercenary men Lincoln hires to lobby for the Thirteenth Amendment, the slapstick, vaudevillian nature of which travails is entertaining when the audience knows the outcome, but which is in fact pretty horrible when you consider the fact that this kind of lobbying is the exact same reason you will be sentenced to life in prison if you are caught with more than 650 grams of cocaine in Michigan. Or think of some other egregious and fucked up thing that is somehow a law-- chances are someone lobbied for it and lobbied hard.
The sweeping strings of John Williams’s score and the chiaroscuro ascensional shots of people dressed in period costumes as men whose likenesses we see on money preclude the much more comfortable ironic stance this film could have taken. We see the same thing in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, a genre film through and through whose virtue lies in its unerring fidelity to the Western. In True Grit there are no sidelong glances at the racist stereotypes of Native Americans that characterized nearly all Westerns, no knowing nods to the impoverished gender politics of our forefathers. It, like Lincoln, is decidedly sentimental. And who is the object of that sepia-toned sentiment in Lincoln but the film’s eponymous hero?
And Lincoln himself emerges as a man whose strength lies in his deep, heart-wrenching sweetness, his wisdom and his tenderness, his ability to be at the same time a president, a politician, a man, and, above all, a father. That he is an extraordinary father to his sons is shown time and time again. So many scenes of argument with his cabinet are interrupted by the sudden intrusion of his 12 year old son Tad, and Lincoln, to the occasional annoyance of others in the room, never gets frustrated with him. But Lincoln is idealized as a father to the nation most of all. He demands from his children, from every American citizen, a rigorous adherence to moral righteousness and the law, and he alone decides when the law can be violated in favor of a higher truth. The film applauds Lincoln for sidestepping the democratic process, for lying to Congress, for “going rogue” in the pursuit of a justice democracy could not achieve. Lincoln shows the American political system to be completely inadequate; or rather, it lays bare the need within American democracy for its own negation. Though the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, it was not, according to Lincoln, because anything about America worked well, but because one man, Lincoln, perpetrated an act of antidemocratic violence against his country, a negation of democracy that, paradoxically, was the only way a truer democracy could arise.
Woody Brown is a writer who lives in Buffalo, NY.