November 26, 2012

Why I didn't like "Lincoln"

Matthew Rothschild, Progressive - Calling the History Department, 1: The film depicts Lincoln as being forever and deeply anti-slavery, which is a distortion, as this quote from 1862 in his letter to Horace Greeley proves:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."

Playwright Tony Kushner (whom I usually love) knew about this quote, and has Lincoln obliquely wish it away in the script. Sorry, that’s not kosher, Kushner.

Calling the History Department, 2: Lincoln suffered from depression. It would have served the cause of accuracy and mental-health awareness if Steven Spielberg and Kushner had included this.

Calling the History Department, 3: Where was Frederick Douglass? Lincoln had an important friendship with the great black freedom fighter, an amazing figure unto himself, but there is no Frederick Douglass in this film—and, for that matter, no strong African American who is neither a soldier nor a house servant, with all of them positioned in subservience.


Scott said...

Douglass met with Lincoln before the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, but, as far as I know, didn't meet with him in the few months covered by the movie, which depicts Lincoln's efforts in early 1865 to get the 13th Amendment passed in the US House.

It would have been interesting to hear Douglass's reactions to the debate over the 13th Amendment in the movie. (Was Douglass in Washington DC during the events shown in the movie?) But it's impossible to include everything -- even a two-and-a-half hour movie needs a lot of dramatic compression.

Rothschild's comments about the depiction of blacks in 'Lincoln' confuses social subservience with dramatic subservience. Elizabeth Keckley, who was Mary Todd Lincoln's servant in the White House, is a strong character in the movie. The script allows the audience to experience several key moments, like the debates in the US House on the 13th Amendment (especially speeches by Thaddeus Stephens) and its passage, through her eyes. She expresses her own views on the debate. In that sense, she's not subservient at all. She isn't one of the two lead characters, but her presence is as indispensable to the drama as Robert Todd Lincoln, Sec. of State Seward, William Bilbo, and the other "co-star" roles.

Anonymous said...

Lincoln disliked slavery, but this was incidental to the compromises required to save the Union since 1820, about which he was a walking encyclopedia. He engaged the border states while presiding over a Constitutional revolution. Despite control of Congress and the Court, the slaveocracy had seceded to get separation from the emerging industrial plutocracy. Admired by Marx, Lincoln was best remembered by TR at Osawatomie. Addressing the veterans in the audience, TR said that subsequent generations were charged to keep Lincoln's faith in our national purpose, that of equal opportunity. Movie moguls now look for box office from audiences who know Mount Rushmore but are unsure of the equal opportunity thing.

Abraham Lincoln Quote said...

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything."

Anonymous said...

I saw the film Lincoln twice (my mother-in-law wanted to see it, so I went a second time), and I did not think the film portrayed him as deeply anti-slavery, quite the contrary. It depicted him as being distrusted by the abolitionists and radical Republicans because they found him to be not committed enough to the anti-slavery cause, but instead found his anti-slavery stance to be one of expediency, geared around the pragmatic goal of ending the war (as the Lincoln quote says). That theme was sounded several times in the film, so I don’t know how Rothschild came to his conclusion. The film does show Lincoln finally, in the 11th hour as the war was clearly moving toward Confederate surrender, seizing what he saw as a final opportunity to pass the 13th Amend, since once the war was over and the Confed states readmitted, it would not be possible to pass an amend to free the slaves. So Lincoln gave a final push, and even indicates his willingness to delay peace talks by a couple of weeks, in order to give the 13th amend time to build support in the House. But even then, I really didn’t see the film as portraying him as fervently anti-slave, as much as a practical politician seizing on an opportunity to right what he had always seen as a great wrong (but had not been willing to spend political capital to change). There are quotes from Lincoln going back throughout his career showing he found slavery deeply offensive, but as a poltician he wasn’t about to push to abolish it. Until finally in the 11th hour when he put the weight of his office and personality behind it during a one month period during January 1865, after he has won re-election convincingly. 90% of the film takes place during that one month period.

I also saw traces in the film of Lincoln’s famous depression, as well as Mary Todd’s. But it was not a central focus, nor should it have been, since in the four month time period in which it was mostly focused – Dec 1964 thru April 1965, with most of the time of the film depicting Jan 1865 – there is no evidence that Lincoln was debilitated by depression.

I thought it was a terrific film, but of course it’s Spielberg and Hollywood. Sometimes we ask too much from a simple story. All in all, I thought it was well done.

- Steve

Anonymous said...

Considering most of the country probably now believes that Abraham Lincoln was a famous vampire killer, it couldn't have been that bad of a historical reconstruction.

Capt. America said...

Bush and Obama favored Petraeus for his political talent, which was to manage a defeat rather than to win a war. (Not that there was any way of coming out ahead in Iraq) Lincoln was also inept at managing the military, and his experience with REL caused him to mistrust some of his best officers. He made a 4 month war into a 4 year war. For example, Winfield Scott (a Virginian) advised him to a Western strategy, which he failed to follow at first, and G. H. Thomas (a Virginian) was denied permission to take Vicksburg, which would have been easy at the beginning of the war. Gen. Meade failed to pursue and destroy Lee's army after Gettysburg, yet he retained his rank when he should have been dealt with most severely. And the peninsula...