On Spielberg’s Lincoln

Note: this blog post is not a standard review so much as it is my thoughts on the recently released movie, Lincoln. Therefore, anyone who has not seen the movie, plans on seeing it, and is averse to spoilers should probably not read past this point.

This must be Lincoln Year. I can’t remember the last time before 2012 that I saw a movie about Abraham Lincoln come out in theaters. This summer, we had Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. If you had taken the matter of the vampires off the table when evaluating it for historical accuracy which, as a fantasy lover I was inclined to do, you could still have made an equally long movie detailing all of the historical errors Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made. Lincoln, by contrast, had only one major point that might qualify as a historical error, which I discuss later in this blog post. I found Daniel Day-Lewis to be a mixed blessing as Lincoln. His acting skills were perfectly good. His high-pitched voice may have caught some people off guard, but it is consistent with the way that primary sources describe Lincoln as sounding. I have always said that with his reedy voice and Southern backwoods twang, our sixteenth president probably sounded a lot like Jim Nabors. Still, I was disappointed that Liam Neeson, the actor originally cast to play Lincoln, left the film as it floundered in development Hell. At 6’4”, Neeson would have been exactly the right height to play Lincoln, and in recent years, he’s also acquired an appropriate build. His stated reason for leaving the film was that he had gotten too old, but this seems illogical and downright bizarre. Lincoln is fifty-five with the movie begins and fifty-six when it ends. I cannot believe that the sixty-year old Neeson could not convincingly play a 55-year old living in the 1800s and aged by four years of serving as president during a major war. Also, Daniel Day-Lewis is, depending on the source, 6’1-6’2”, and while that is taller than most American men, it does not allow his height to stand out quite as much as Neeson’s would have. This is especially true given that one of the main antagonists of the film, Fernando Wood, is played by the 6’3” Lee Pace. In real life, Wood was six feet tall, which means he should look several inches shorter than Lincoln. One thing I liked about the movie was that it touched on so many of the Lincoln family quirks and controversies. We see how Abe had prophetic dreams, and Mary Todd became more and more unhinged after the death of her son, Willie. (Another one of the Lincoln’s sons, Edward, had died back in 1850 at the age of four.) We also see how Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe’s oldest son, was kept out of the military for a long time by Mary, before he eventually became an assistant to General Ulysses S. Grant and was thereby able to serve in the military at minimal risk. Finally, we see glimpses of the tornado-like behavior of Tad Lincoln, Abe’s youngest son. In real life, Willie and Tad Lincoln were notorious for wreaking havoc through wild games wherever they went, and Mary and Abe were notorious for exceptionally permissive parenting. I cannot help but think that in today’s media, the Lincoln family would fare quite poorly. Another thing the movie did a good job of was having well-developed African American characters. Perhaps the most well developed one was Elizabeth Keckley, a real life historical figure who purchased her freedom and became an employee and friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. Abe’s racism, mild for the era but still blatant, gets touched on but does not become a major plot point. And indeed, the film only covers the last months of his life. This means we do not get to see his time as a lawyer when he defended a black woman in a mortgage proceeding—and helped a slaveholder regain a runaway slave and her children. We do not see him as a young Congressman, opposing the Mexican War, waged partly to gain more slave states, and supporting the Wilmot Proviso to ban slavery in new Western land. We do not see him as a Senate candidate, partaking in his iconic debates with Stephen Douglas, opposing both slavery and abolitionism, repudiating racial equality while insisting that the Declaration of Independence applied to blacks. We do not see him in the first term of his presidency, initially insisting that the Union is not fighting to end slavery, trying unsuccessfully to placate distrustful slaveholders, and slowly moving toward the abolitionist camp through such steps as issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. We do not see his interaction with Frederick Douglass. We do not see his bid for reelection in 1864, in which some abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass initially supported the more radical John C. Fremont in his attempt to wrest the GOP nomination away from Lincoln. If the movie had begun in the 1840s, it might have allowed the audience a better look at the complexities of Lincoln’s racial views. Still, the largely forgotten and historically maligned figure of Thaddeus Stevens gets a good treatment in the film that might begin to rehabilitate his reputation. Stevens, for those who have not heard of him, was the House leader of the “Radical Republicans” and one of the most liberal members of Congress in the 1800s when it came to slavery and race. He was a longtime proponent of black voting rights, defended runaway slaves as an attorney, and was one of only two Congressmen to vote against an 1861 resolution stating, in part, that the North was not fighting the Civil War to end slavery. The month that the Thirteenth Amendment became law, Stevens proposed a resolution against racial discrimination similar to what became the Fourteenth Amendment. As the movie depicts, he advocated confiscating plantations and dividing them up amongst ex slaves, and during Reconstruction, he was a leading advocate of increased rights for freed blacks. When he died, he was buried in an integrated cemetery and left money to an orphanage, which he insisted be free of racial segregation. Yet just as the movie depicts Stevens’ radicalism, it also shows how he sometimes took a moderate stance that might even be construed as racist. In one scene, a racist Democratic Congressman tries to bait Stevens into saying that he believes in total racial equality. Fearing that expressing such a view will doom the Thirteenth Amendment, Stevens reluctantly implies that he does not support total equality. In real life, Stevens reassured moderates that the Fourteenth Amendment would not make state laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional, so long as people of all races were punished equally for violating them. Was Stevens morally wrong to pander or equivocate in such a manner? Ought he to have taken the more aggressive stance of abolitionists like Wendell Phillips or his Senate colleague, Charles Sumner (who gets only a marginal role in the movie but is played quite accurately)? Yes. However, in Stevens’s answer to critics of the Fourteenth Amendment, one can detect the work of an old lawyer. Notice that Stevens avoided saying that he personally believed interracial marriage to be unnatural or that state laws against it were just. He simply said that the Fourteenth Amendment would not interfere with such laws. Given Stevens’s life, I am inclined to believe that such a statement was a calculated measure to improve the Fourteenth Amendment’s chances of passing rather than a display of sincere racism. And indeed, the movie touches on an aspect of Stevens’ personal life that has been debated since he was in politics. A lifelong bachelor, Stevens had a housekeeper named Lydia Smith who was one-quarter African American. During his political career, people claimed that Stevens and Smith were lovers, and some historians believe to this day that they were. There is evidence, albeit circumstantial, for this idea, and near the end of the film, Lincoln shows Stevens and Smith in bed together, clearly romantically involved. Speaking of Stevens and the Radical Republicans, I was impressed that Steven Spielberg, a staunch Democrat, did not avoid making it clear that the Democratic Party of Lincoln’s era was proslavery. In fact, one would have a hard time not knowing that fact after seeing this movie. My main criticism was that the filmmakers missed an opportunity to correct some misconceptions about the Emancipation Proclamation. In the film, Lincoln tries to explain to his Cabinet why the Thirteenth Amendment is necessary by pointing out that after the war, a judge could rule the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional and send legions of blacks back into slavery. Quite right, says this historian, but there was another reason the amendment had to be passed. As I explained in a blog post about two months ago, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to states and locales under Confederate jurisdiction at the time that the proclamation was issued. For instance, a slave in Harlan County, Kentucky or Dorchester County, Maryland was out of luck for the time being. While Maryland and Missouri abolished slavery of their own accord between the start of the war and the passage 13th Amendment, Kentucky and Delaware did not. (Of the two states, Kentucky had a MUCH larger slave population.) Unfortunately, too many Americans have been taught that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves, and I suppose the filmmakers thought it would be futile to expend much effort trying to convince them otherwise.

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1 Comment

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One response to “On Spielberg’s Lincoln

  1. Shannon Boyd

    Looking forward to seeing the movie. Oprah recently interviewed speilberg, and the actors in the movie. It was interesting.

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