Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spielberg's Lincoln

Spielberg's Lincoln

Commander Kelly is a qualified Spielberg fan.  The first half hour of Saving Private Ryan is one of the most harrowing and honest depictions of war ever produced in film history; the remainder of the movie is pedestrian.  Spielberg has directed great "entertainments" such as Raiders of the Lost Ark.  He is frequently guilty of a kind of maudlin sentimentality that has worked wonders at the box office (see earlier post, Snorehorse and the Ron Paul campaign, 1/19/12).  He also produced Band of Brothers -- one of the finest history-based television programs ever made.

I approached his Lincoln, therefore, with a mixture of hope and suspicion.

Abraham Lincoln has a place in the great pantheon of Conservative heroes, along with Washington and Churchill that have championed liberty in the hours of her greatest peril.  I have railed against the Lincoln-loathing revisionist historians (see earlier posts Lincoln in London, Ron Paul and Revisionist History, 3/17/12) and enjoy the rich complexity of the US Civil War.  How would Spielberg attempt to portray Lincoln and re-package him for consumption by modern audiences?

The vast majority of Americans have a shocking disregard for history (see earlier post Western Civilization, 2/1/13).  A majority of American fourth grades do not know, for example, why Abraham Lincoln was an important historical figure  I am, therefore, grateful to see Spielberg shine a light on Lincoln in a way that makes him appealing and familiar to a new generation.

It is widely known that Spielberg delayed the release of Lincoln until after the US election of 2012 was over.  Why did he do so?  After Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes interviewed him she declared, "Spielberg decided to hold off releasing the movie until after the November election, because he didn't want the film to become a tug of war about party politics."  (  The truth is that, even today, Lincoln is political dynamite.  Spielberg is a Hollywood Democrat who was making a film about the founder of the Republican party.  One of the central political myths of our time is that the Democratic party is the party of racial equality.  The example of Lincoln shreds this concept and turns it on its head.  The Democratic party was the party of plantation slavery in the South and the Northern "Copperheads" who were complacent about the institution of slavery.*

Thaddeus Stevens
Lincoln tells the tale of how Lincoln shepherded the 13th amendment, which ended slavery in the USA, through passage in the US House of Representatives.  Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, magnificently portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, was far ahead of his time or, indeed, Lincoln in terms of racial equality.  Stevens, who never married, lived with a quadroon widow, Lydia Hamilton Smith; she was his "housekeeper with benefits".  On his death in 1868, Stevens' will stipulated that his corpse would be buried in an unsegregated cemetery -- an unusual request for the time.  The inscription on his headstone reads, "I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator."

Lincoln in London, Parliament Square
Photo courtesy of James Hooper
Lincoln, played by Academy-award nominated Daniel Day Lewis, was a masterful storyteller.  In one of the film's highlights, Lincoln tells the hilarious tale of Ethan Hale and the effect of George Washington's picture in a British water closet.  Astonishingly, this is historically accurate in regard to Lincoln, Hale and Washington.  This one scene is worth the price of admission!

Just as the best lines in Patton were spoken or written by George Patton himself (Coppola won the Oscar for best screenplay though), the best lines in this movie were written by Abraham Lincoln.

I worried that Spielberg would apply a bit too much Vaseline to the camera in his scenes with Lincoln.  His use of sepia tones in imitation of Matthew Brady photographs set Lincoln up as as an icon.**  The fact was that Lincoln was neither a saint nor a liberal Chardonnay-sipping 21st century college professor.  He must be understood as within the context and circumstances of his time.  He did violate Habeus Corpus and strained the limits of the constitution nearly to the breaking point.  Lincoln did flirt with the hare-brained idea of deporting ex slaves back to Africa on the war's conclusion.  He also authorized Sherman's march to the sea which brutally set Atlanta ablaze and resulted in many civilian deaths.  The draft riots in New York city were the equivalent of a Confederate battlefield victory.  The extenuating circumstance was that the very existence of the Union was in jeopardy and extreme measures were needed to preserve it.  Lincoln said famously, "The constitution is not a suicide pact."  Habeus Corpus was restored in the USA at the war's conclusion.

The early and brief combat scenes in this movie are truly disappointing, especially from Spielberg who was masterful in Saving Private Ryan.  The major technological innovation in warfare between the Napoleonic era and the US Civil war was the widespread introduction of rifled weapons.  These put much greater range and accuracy in the hands of the infantry.  The kind of hand-to-hand combat represented in this movie was extremely rare during the Civil war.

Spielberg's Lincoln has some historical flaws.  Connecticut, a staunch Union state, DID vote to ratify the 13th
amendment (  Thaddeus Stevens did not use the original copy of the 13th amendment as an aphrodisiac.  Tad Lincoln did not learn of his father's assassination in a crowded theatre.

Most significantly, Lincoln DID NOT strike his son Robert as portrayed in this movie (  This misrepresentation is disturbing as Lincoln was essentially a gentle soul who detested violence and was scrupulous in his personal conduct.

One of the great ironies of American history was that Lincoln, a non-violent pacifist, was Commander in Chief during the bloodiest conflict in American history (About 750,000 American deaths according to revised estimates that came out in 2012  Congressman Lincoln had adamantly opposed the highly popular Mexican-American war (1846 -1848) that gained vast territory (from Texas to California) and cost relatively few American lives (about 13,000 total US casualties).  He was by training a lawyer with no previous military background. Lincoln checked out books on military strategy from the library of Congress to learn more about the art of war.

Consider a bit of counter factual history.  Had the Southern states not seceded and fired on fort Sumter the US Civil war could have been avoided.  President Lincoln would have presided over a period of peace and he would be chiefly remembered for having initiated the transcontinental railway; that is to say, he would be forgotten.  The scope of the crisis brought out the greatness of Lincoln -- our nation's greatest politician and its most humane man.

It is interesting to consider some of the great "ifs" of history.  Had Lincoln been endowed with the military genius of Napoleon, the US Civil war (given the North's many strategic advantages, population, industry, railroads, navy, etc.) might have been brought to a swift close after the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, saving countless lives.  Early in the war, Lincoln was overly tolerant of a series of incompetent Union commanders.  The great tragedy of the US Civil war was that, due to Lincoln's weakness as Commander-in-Chief and the superiority of Southern generalship, a war that could and should have been won by the North in four months, required four dreadful years.  On the other hand, had Lincoln been like Napoleon...he would not have been Lincoln.

* The first African-Americans elected to the US Senate were Republicans in the reconstruction South.  The vast majority of Black voters supported Republican candidates from 1865 until the 1930's.  The KKK was for many years the "militant wing" of the Democratic party.  DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a KKK recruiting film, was the first film ever screened in the White House.  On viewing it Democratic President Woodrow Wilson exclaimed, "It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true."  FDR and particularly Eleanor worked to gain the support of Black Americans, but FDR was the Commander in Chief of a strictly segregated military during World War II.  It was a Republican President (Eisenhower) who integrated the US armed forces and send in the national guard at Little Rock.  A higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the landmark Civil Rights act of 1964.  Ronald Reagan made Colin Powell his National Security Advisor, George HW Bush appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and George W. Bush made him the first Black Secretary of State.  Bush also appointed Condolezza Rice the first black female Secretary of State.

**  We can be certain that the US Civil War, viewed from the perspective of the combatants, did not resemble a Matthew Brady print or a Ken Burns film; it was fought in living, bleeding color.

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades or on


Tom Abraham said...

Glad to see you hit this head on. I thought the movie was a loser and I don't believe that it did justice to Lincoln himself nor the broader milieu of events. Most Americans do not appreciate Lincoln nor the role he played in shaping contemporary America. So many things that he did over his Presidency and the complexity of the challenges confronting the Union are missed in this movie. Goodwin's book obviously encompasses a much longer time period and does address the issues, but I am disappointed that the movie only focuses on that one month period.

You mention the Copperhead Democrats, but let us not forget the Know Nothings. McClellan, one of the most craven generals in history, was a Democrat with designs on the Presidency, though thankfully a non-factor by 1865. He was not alone, and many of advocates were New York Democrats. I doubt many of them owned homes in the Hamptons. Civil War riots over the draft occurred in NYC. Seward also from NY was a significant player, but he was not alone in the Team of Rivals. The movie misses most of those dynamics. The role of the Blair family is portrayed, but to me is more confusing than illuminating in the movie. People like Charles Sumner also played a significant role, was a true Radical, and yet I don't recall his being mentioned in the movie. His lacking a dramatic device, a quadroon as housekeeper with benefits as you called it, moves him down in dramatic appeal.

One doesn't have to return to the Civil War to recall the role of the Democratic party in segregation. The voices of George Wallace, Ross Barnett and Strom Thurmond are still strong in my memory. All would be choking in an Obama presidency. But LBJ and others made a huge difference in achieving a turning point in American politics. The parties have changed character, and neither wants to acknowledge its heritage. Perhaps a bit like the Tories and Labour over here.

I also don't believe that the movie truly portrays the attitude of most of the Republicans, including Lincoln himself, on the subject of equality of the races. It does suggest that he was not a strict abolitionist. However, the 13th amendment rested in part on the argument that men were equal before the law, not that they were equal in humanity. That was the foundation of ongoing segregation, and was obviously vigorously defended until the Civil RIghts movement finally killed it. I suspect Lincoln might be surprised by a black President.

The movie also misses the heritage of the foundation of the US, during which period Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians heatedly debated states' rights versus federal power. That debate was central to the Civil War with the Democrats obviously staunchly supporting states' rights and a weaker federal government. Times have indeed changed. Nonetheless, the underpinnings of the Civil War were not a debate over slavery alone. I don't see that being properly reflected in the movie. It is not absent but it is not central. The Confederacy wanted dissolution to protect their perverted life style predicated upon subjugation of a race, much the same as every other evil empire in the history of the world.

The process of amending the constitution is also passed over. The passage in the House was but one step. In fact 3/4 of the states themselves also needed to approve. That only came after Lincoln was assassinated. That is only obliquely referenced in the negotiations between Lincoln and the Confederate delegation outside of Washington. How many people in the US can explain it? Very few, and the movie totally misses the complexity and yet the elegance of the process. The willingness of the Union to allow the Confederate states to vote on the passage of the amendment was a huge concession.

(to be continued)

Tom Abraham said...

I could live with the factual inaccuracies of the movie, and some of the anecdotes like Ethan Hale are well known. You're correct that the best dialog belongs to Lincoln's own authorship. I might add that I doubt Stevens spoke with a deep south accent, given that he was from Pennsylvania. I was not enamoured of the Tommie Lee Jones portrayal. On the other hand, Lincoln's interest in Euclidian geometry is quite true. But the histrionics with soldiers reciting from the Gettysburg Address, dead bodies strewn around a smouldering battlefield and the like detracts significantly in my mind. The roll call vote in the House was obviously not done by state and never has been. Melodramatic detritus that undercuts the true story. Sherman's march to the sea would have been an interesting item to cover. In retrospect, I believe it was essential to crippling the confederacy, but could be debated ad nauseam just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been. The heart and soul of the so-called gentility of the Confederacy had to be destroyed. Probably too complex an issue for a Hollywood movie.

It was a gut-wrenching time and nearly cratered the Union. However, Lincoln stood up for what he believed, and was unafraid to cut corners. He was fighting an evil group of people that called for tough measures. Mitigation of habeas corpus was perhaps a version of water-boarding torture, and an infringement that would not be tolerated today. But it served a purpose. Lincoln himself is a far cry from what either party offers us today. With all due respect, Romney is not cut from the same cloth and the Republicans of 2013 are galaxies away from the party of Lincoln, to mix metaphors.

To put a final conclusion on this, we took our kids to see the movie with the intention of educating them on the man and the times. That failed miserably. We had a discussion afterwards, and I felt totally let down on that objective. Spielberg has made a big loser.

Commander Kelly said...

To be sure, Mitt Romney is no Lincoln or Churchill. Then again, Obama is no FDR either!

Thanks for reading and your extremely thoughtful comments.

Jim Hooper said...

I watched Lincoln on the flight to Moscow. I was ready to be disappointed; then found myself being drawn-into the narrative.

They did a nice job of portraying the 'vote buying' process; as well as the political environment within the congress of that period. Hunter S. Thompson claimed to have been told by Nixon "f__k the people", Thadeus Stevens appears to have had a similar view of 'the people'.

One thing I have been curious about, the screenplay's use of the word 'fairness'. Daniel Day Lewis uses the word poignantly in the scene where he explains the urgency of 13th amendment passage before the wars end. Perhaps I am just sensitized to the word - it's so often used as liberal punctuation.

That word 'fairness' sounds out-of-place in 1865 dialogue. Lincoln might perhaps have used the term 'fair' - 'that would be fair' versus the phrase used in the movie "that's fairness". The word hit me like a thumb-in-the eye. Do you know? Was fairness a common term in Lincoln's time?

Bob Willard said...

One of the neat things about computers is that they can allow one to look like an expert even when you're not. I can report with some confidence, thanks to resources on the web, that the word "fairness" shows up 22 times in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and 2 times in Mr. Kushner's screenplay.

Bill Funk (USMC ret.) said...

Great post on Lincoln. There are, for sure, a lot more "Ifs" surrounding that terrible war than the railroad aspect that could have determined a different outcome. From what I have read, "if" Lee had not accepted Burnside's call for truce to round up the dead and wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg and chose instead to continue attacking the retreating and panicked Union soldiers to Washington, where they fled, there might have been a collapsed Federal government then and there. But, Lee graciously granted the truce allowing Burnside to egress safely. But then, ""If" pigs had wings, we would all be carrying umbrellas, all the time."