Lincoln: A cautionary tale that tries to be important

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most complex presidents in American history. For over a century he was revered as our most important president, after George Washington, but recently his star has been tarnished by questions about his motives and tactics. Was Lincoln a forward-thinking civil rights advocate who restored a nation to wholeness, or was he merely a politician playing the race card to win the war and create a whole new constituency of former slaves?

Steven Spielberg’s ambitious Lincoln tries to answer some of these questions. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), a book that focuses on Lincoln’s conciliatory spirit and determination to work with cabinet members he selected from among those who had opposed him in the 1860 election.  This forgiving nature is what I admire most about Lincoln.  His beatific “When I make them my friends, am I not destroying my enemies?”, said in response to those who wanted to continue punishing the South after the war had ended, is a quotation that guides my life.

The film, however, focuses less on conciliation than on politics as-would-become-usual. Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) works relentlessly to shepherd (some would say “push”) the thirteenth amendment through Congress in the waning days of the Civil War.  Support for this amendment to outlaw slavery was divided along party lines; Republicans favored it, but did not have enough votes to pass it, and Democrats were against it.  This probably comes as a surprise to most, because Democrats today love to accuse Republicans of racism. Nevertheless, it is true that Obama???s favorite president was a Republican, and it was the Republicans in Congress who supported the thirteenth amendment, enfranchised the slaves, and squelched states’ rights, while Democrats remained firmly on the other side of the aisle.

Although many Americans were ready to end the buying and selling of slaves, few were ready for full enfranchisement.  “What would happen if four million colored men are granted the vote?” one cabinet member asks rhetorically. “What would be next? Votes for women?” But Lincoln knew that his war-weary citizenry would do anything for a truce, even grant equal rights to African Americans, so he convinces them that ratifying the amendment would force the South into surrendering.

Lincoln does a good job of articulating why the Emancipation Proclamation was only a stopgap wartime measure.  Ironically, slaves were freed under a law identifying them as “property seized during war.”  Thus the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery; in fact, it had to acknowledge the property status of slaves in order to claim them. He further explains that, since rebels residing inside the southern states were at war, not the states themselves, after the war ended state laws would still be in force. A constitutional amendment would be necessary to end slavery for good.  Since southern voters would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, passing it and ratifying it before the war ended was essential.

This seems an unlikely supposition, considering the fact that if the south surrendered under a negotiated peace, Union legislators would determine under what conditions southerners would be repatriated. Nevertheless, this idea dominates the entire film and creates the urgency to hurry up and pass the bill before the south surrenders. At one point Secretary Seward (David Strathairn) tells Lincoln, ???You can have either the amendment or a Confederate peace. You cannot have both.???

Lincoln is so determined to see this amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception. First, he enlists a group of unscrupulous patronage peddlers to promise political jobs and appointments to lame-duck Democrats if they will promise to vote for the amendment. They add piles of cash to sweeten the deals, and the votes start piling up too. The group is headed by a bilko artist with the unlikely name of “Bilbo” (James Spader). All of their scenes are accompanied by comical music to make us laugh at their outrageously funny and effective techniques. Aren’t they clever as they connive to buy votes?

He also uses corrupt practices to gain support for the bill from the electorate. In one scene, a Missouri farm couple comes to Lincoln???s office seeking his help over a property dispute. Without even looking at their complaint, he suggests that he will find in their favor if they will visit their Democrat congressman and urge him to vote in favor of the amendment.  These strong-arm tactics are presented as good politics.

In addition to buying votes for his amendment, Lincoln also resorts to outright lying. When Jefferson Davis sends emissaries to discuss a negotiated peace while the amendment is coming to a vote, Lincoln knows that some of his “negotiated support” is likely to change, and the amendment is likely to fail. Consequently, he sends a letter denying any knowledge of the peace delegation from Richmond, even though this is clearly a lie. He sends this note with a flourish and a chuckle–and the audience in my theater cheered. I was disheartened that they didn’t feel the same shame I felt when I saw a president of the United States deliberately lie to get his way. But I wasn’t surprised. It’s what we expect today.

In case you haven’t noticed this yourself, I will spell it out: the tactics for pushing the thirteenth amendment as shown in Spielberg’s Lincoln are almost identical to the tactics used by Obama to pass his healthcare bill.  Each was sponsoring a highly controversial bill with far-reaching consequences; each had a Congress divided along party lines; each used high pressure arm-twisting, political patronage, and outright lies to accomplish his goals; and each met vociferous opposition after the bill was passed. Why?  Because they both chose expediency over integrity.  Persuasion and education were needed, not force and deception. When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

What I have written here makes the film seem much more interesting than it actually is. My thoughts about writing this review kept me engaged; you probably won’t have that advantage. Daniel Day Lewis creates a masterfully crafted Lincoln and deserves all the accolades he is gathering for the title role. But it is not a very engaging movie. Playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is more comfortable writing for the stage, and it shows. The pacing is ponderously slow, and the script, though elegant, is dialogue heavy. In short, the film is all talk and no action. That’s okay for a 90-minute stage play, but not for a three-hour film on a gigantic screen. I???m also skeptical about Kushner???s accuracy, based on the biases that appear in his other works.

There is also surprisingly little dramatic conflict for a film that takes place during the height of the costliest war in our history. We see the effects of war in the form of dead and mutilated soldiers in a couple of scenes, but we never see examples or effects of slavery; in fact, all the black characters in this film are well dressed and well spoken, and except for the soldiers, they sit and socialize with the whites. If a viewer didn’t already know the history of slavery in America, he would have to wonder, what’s the complaint?  On either side?  Moreover, the “bad guys” are being invaded by a super power, while the “good guys” are lying and buying votes.  So how does that fit our usual expectation of heroes and villains?

I’m also offended by the deliberate race-baiting in this film, and indeed in several films and Broadway shows I have seen in the past couple of years. Why is it okay to add “for a white person” (followed by self-deprecating chuckles and head-nodding from the audience) when describing someone’s physical appearance or personal attributes? I thought we gave up saying “for a [colored] person” long ago. Haven’t we finally come to a place where we can just stop noticing race and gender? Why do pollsters and educators continue to divide people by ethnicity?  It’s time to just burn that race card and bury it. Economics and education are at the root of inequity today, not race.

Lincoln tries to be an important film, and in one respect it is–as a cautionary tale for today. But it falls short–even though it’s way too long.

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Pictures, 2012, 149 minutes.