It’s a great, but not a flawless, movie. Steven Spielberg, the King of Hollywood, and Tony Kushner, Angels in America author, teamed up to create an illuminating and entertaining snapshot of the icon of American democracy, Abraham Lincoln, and of legislative politics. The artistry is impressive, as usual for Spielberg, and Kushner. Politically, it raises interesting questions, provoking important debates: a work of art, not a polemic.
The opening battle scene was striking and gruesome, though reminiscent of Spielberg’s early works: hand-to-hand combat, less mechanized than in Saving Private Ryan, with the interracial struggle emphasized. As in Schindler’s List, the human tragedy is compactly presented. The great moral outrage in Schindler, the ferocity of the anti-Semitic genocide, was graphically depicted in the clearing of the ghetto scene. It was at the core of the film and its greatness (despite its problematic Hollywood wrapping, “happy end” and all that, as I argued in my essay on anti-Americanism). I think Spielberg was trying to do the same in this battle scene, though with less success. The interracial struggle for justice and its brutality were there to see, but because the battle somehow didn’t engage as the ghetto scene did, critics, Kate Masur and Corey Robin, among many others, have noted that African Americans appear in the film merely as on-lookers in a story about their liberation.
I was deeply impressed by the clearing of the ghetto in Schindler’s List and the battle scene of Saving Private Ryan. These are cinematic high points, great moments in the history of film. They are difficult to watch, though impossible to turn away from. The opening scene of Lincoln is not as compelling. Perhaps because it so directly quotes from the Ryan battle scene: strange how it is that art doesn’t work the second time around. I think this is at the root of the political criticism of the movie. If the scene had worked, the criticism would not have made sense.
On the other hand, the film accomplishes more than its strongest critics and supporters maintain. Its political strengths are connected to its artistic accomplishment. It asks questions in engaging ways, avoiding simple answers to complex problems. It illuminates the dilemmas of enduring the tragedies of the social condition (more on this in future posts), showing how dilemmas sometimes can be overcome with creativity. The film does not provide simple formulas about the tension between idealism and realism, moderation and radicalism, fact and fantasy. I think this is Lincoln’s greatest strength.
David Brooks of the Times and Al Hunt, at Bloomberg, loved the film. As mainstream commentators of American politics, conservative and liberal, they particularly appreciated the realistic account of how things get done in official politics.
“The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.
It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.”
“It’s the best movie about Washington politics I’ve seen…It brilliantly captures him doing what politicians are supposed to do, and today too often avoid: compromising, calculating, horse trading, dealing and preventing the perfect from becoming the enemy of a good objective.”
I agree with these judgments, but also think they miss important points. Politicians acting forthrightly on high principle provide the bargaining capacity of the tough realists – in Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens for Abraham Lincoln. And high-principled social movements, definitive elections and significant military action set the stage for realist deals – here the abolitionists, the re-election of Lincoln and the union victories of the Civil War.
It is the need for a broader focus that concerns radical critics of the film, such as Aaron Bady, at Jacobin.
“Lincoln is not a movie about Reconstruction, of course; it’s a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people.
…It is about the triumph of a political compromiser, and it argues that radical change comes about by triangulation, by back-room deals, and by a willingness to forego ideological purity.”
Bady maintains that “slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist.” On the battlefield and throughout the countryside a new status quo had already been established. The amendment was a formality. The passage of the Thirteenth amendment was a mere confirmation in law what had already happened in society. Mere?
I think Bady misses the artistic point, as he makes a perfectly reasonable political one. The tight focus, it seems to me, is presented not because Spielberg and Kushner are proposing that this is where the real political action is, but because this focus brings us in, gives the viewer a sense of intimate participation in a turning point in American history, through an aesthetic experience. Hunt, Brooks and Bady confuse art with politics, with a political theory or interpretation. They miss the power of Daniel Day Lewis’s brilliant performance.
The film successfully paints a cinematic canvas, which suggests multiple political responses, inviting discussion about politics then and now. The film enriches experience, providing an intimate knowledge of a time, place and people, in the way only a film can. This is to be found in the details of the film. An alternative reality is created through art: the performance of Day Lewis, the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, along with the directing of Spielberg and the writing of Kushner, down to the fine details, including, the most surprising, the sound.
I actually agree with Hunt, Brooks and Bady, along with Masur and Robins about the politics of the film. It is a wonderful depiction of the interplay between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of ultimate ends, as Max Weber would put it, and as Brooks and Hunt applaud. The films narrow focus on gritty official politics, on the other hand, leaves out a great deal, including the importance of social movement and war, and the agency of African Americans, as is highlighted in responses of Robins, Masur and significantly the great historian of the era, Eric Foner. The accomplishment is that this artwork inspires an audience to discuss these issues, about emancipation and about the politics of our times.
My note in this regard, despite the liberal, conservative and radical takes: in a functioning democracy the legislative arena doesn’t make social change but confirms change that is forged elsewhere. Think civil rights, gay rights, women rights and, of course, workers rights. Major social change, on the other hand, needs the official politics to ratify, institutionalize and protect the social change. There is nothing in the film that denies this. Think Martin Luther King Jr. and LBJ as partners, and realize this film is the equivalent of one that focuses on LBJ. Which is more important? An interesting discussion, an interesting film.
A final observation on Spielberg as an artist: I think his children and family movies are his unambiguous best, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. They create complete imaginative worlds that engage and are believable. Fantasy and story, and their technics are in harmony. The power of Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, along with The Color Purple, Amistad, and Munich is that they use Spielberg’s capacity to imagine worlds to connect us with history and pressing social problems. As a result, we get inside history, we live through history, in a way that only film can provide. By getting details right, or at least giving us a sense that they are right, we experience history. This is the magic of art, the magic of Lincoln, which explains its appeal. But there are dissonant notes. Sometimes sentiment gets in the way of historical engagement. Hollywood happy end is a problem, but, in my judgment, not a fatal one. It is a great, but not a flawless movie.