Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner, and Steven Spielberg, 2012
|IMDb lists Lincoln as the 321st title in its records to feature Abraham Lincoln. Here is a clip from the earliest I could find: the 12th, When Lincoln Paid (1913).|
Though the title and 2½-hour running time suggest a full biopic, Lincoln is actually almost entirely about one brief moment in Lincoln's presidency: the effort to push the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. But one of the strengths of cinema is its ability to deliver a massive amount of information in parallel, so Lincoln is able to slip in a lot of the details from the biographies and history books I've read, just in the course of telling its story: Lincoln's high, thin voice with its backwoods accent; his predilection for telling humorous stories even at the most serious moments; the total lack of discipline he imposed on his young son Tad, who was prone to bursting into meetings on military strategy in order to roughhouse with his father. None of this is new, of course — NBC's 1988 miniseries, also called Lincoln, was largely an exercise in "Betcha didn't know that the guy on that money and those monuments was a reedy-voiced jokester!", which makes me wonder how many people actually are surprised by this. Like, in a typical audience the weekend 2012's Lincoln opened… how many people were expecting that voice to come out of Lincoln's mouth, and how many were expecting something deep and sonorous, and how many had never given a thought to Lincoln's voice and had no expectations had all?
I also wonder how familiar people in the audience tended to be with the ideological clash that lies at the heart of this movie. James Loewen wrote in 1995 that U.S. history textbooks (at least those of the late 20th century) generally glossed over or simply omitted the extent to which Southern arguments in favor of slavery were explicitly racist, and glossed over or simply omitted examples of anti-racist discourse in the public sphere. This allowed textbook writers to provide historical figures with two layers of insulation from criticism: "He wasn't a racist, and if he was a racist, well, everybody was a racist!" In reality, opinion at the time ran the full spectrum from those who utterly despised black people and reveled in their enslavement, to those who genuinely thought of slavery as a boon to an inferior race, to those who opposed slavery but who would grant black people no rights beyond freedom, to those who believed the races should be kept separate but considered equal before the law, to those who believed in full racial equality and integration. It is standard for textbooks to mention the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but it wasn't until I read the transcripts years after I finished school that I discovered that to a great extent they were an exercise in Stephen Douglas smearing Lincoln with the accusation that he was such a radical that he fell into the last of these categories — a charge that was plausible only because there were in fact a number of public figures who declared that they did indeed hold those views. "I do not question Mr. Lincoln's conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother, but for my own part, I do not regard the negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my brother or any kin to me whatever," Douglas declared, to laughter and cheers. "Lincoln has evidently learned by heart [Rep. Owen] Lovejoy's catechism. He can repeat it as well as [Rep. John] Farnsworth, and he is worthy of a medal from [Rep. Joshua] Giddings and Fred Douglass for his abolitionism." Lincoln, for his part, steadfastly denied the charge that he shared these men's beliefs. "Anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse," Lincoln chuckled, before turning serious: "I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects — certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man."
It remains a subject of debate to what extent Lincoln truly believed in white supremacy and to what extent he was saying what he had to in order to get elected; Douglas certainly believed Lincoln was prone to pander to his audience, accusing him of offering up a very different message in Freeport (near the Wisconsin border) than in Cairo (wedged between the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri). Lincoln was by nature a ditherer, and he entertained a number of different ideas on how to end slavery: at certain points in his political career he advocated compensated emancipation, and at others he talked up the idea of settling freed slaves in Central America. But by 1865, he knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it. So even though the movie is called Lincoln, Lincoln himself really has no character arc in this movie. From start to finish, he's the same guy: determined to get American slavery ended immediately by constitutional amendment, and unconcerned with any quibbles over what the aftermath might be or over the means by which getting the amendment through the House might be accomplished. Trading jobs for votes, sending deceptive messages to the Capitol, he's cool with all of it the whole way through. The decisive moment in the movie therefore belongs to a secondary character, outspoken egalitarian Thaddeus Stevens, who is put on the spot during the House debate and made to answer whether his motive in voting for the amendment is to establish racial equality — which he would normally stridently answer in the affirmative at the drop of a hat, but which at this moment would likely make the conservative Republicans defect. It's a remarkable scene. Stevens pauses — the music swells — he takes in the faces of the crowd, including that of a hopeful black woman in the balcony — he sets his jaw. The standard Hollywood move would be for him to throw caution to the wind and say what's in his heart, winning over the skeptical crowd Rocky IV-style with impassioned oratory on behalf of an ideal that was then radical and is now part and parcel of being a civilized human being. And Stevens… robotically recites that "I don't hold with equality in all things, only with equality before the law and nothing more." It's clearly the hardest thing he's ever had to do, and it makes the black woman in the balcony retreat from the chamber, deeply wounded. But, at least in world of the film, it's the difference between four million scorned but free people and four million rhetorically validated slaves.
And that's what this movie is about. It's a paean to practicality. Consider: in 2008, Barack Obama could have offered up a full-throated defense of same-sex marriage, instead of giving the too-cute answer that he thought marriage was between a man and a woman, but that his views on the issue were "evolving". That might have made a lot of people feel good inside. It might also have gotten the McCain-Palin ticket elected, and when the Obergefell case or one like it went before the Supreme Court, it might well have faced seven Republican appointees. And thus is same-sex marriage the law of the land rather than a noble plank in the platform of a losing candidate. Now, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, even though deep blue California voted for a same-sex marriage ban the same night it went 61-37 for Obama, an endorsement of same-sex marriage would not have cost Obama states such as North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Iowa. But I do think one thing is pretty clear: the progress of same-sex marriage was not slowed one whit by the passage of civil union legislation in a bunch of states — that is, civil unions were not the political cul-de-sac some claimed them to be. Every so often I hear this notion that you should never accept only part of the change you want to see — that it's better to just let things continue to be really bad in the hopes that it will hasten the day that people demand a total upset in the social order. I've never seen any evidence that this is how life actually works. For instance, I think Obamacare is a ludicrous Rube Goldberg machine of a program, which entrenches private insurance companies in our health care system, and which more than once has trapped me personally in a bureaucratic clusterfuck straight out of Douglas Adams. I would much rather have had single-payer. But how would we be any closer to single-payer had Obamacare not passed? We can keep working on it the same way we did before, and in the meantime, Obamacare is significantly better than what preceded it. Similarly, if people of Thaddeus Stevens's ideological leanings had spiked the 13th Amendment on the grounds that it didn't establish the full racial equality they wanted, would that have "heightened the contradictions" and brought about meaningful civil rights for African-Americans a century earlier? That seems… fanciful, shall we say. I'm far from a moderate, and as a rule I would rather that we take big steps forward rather than little ones. But I find that I'm very sympathetic to this movie's argument that you have to take any steps forward you can when the opportunity arises, whatever the size of those steps.