Tuesday, 2 April 2013

'Lincoln' the film - and Lincoln as history


Many historians have got pretty heated up about Steven Spielberg's recent movie 'Lincoln' (above). It's got some errors in it, not least an inaccurate roll-call of states and representatives who voted for the thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution (the one abolishing slavery). One could add many, many more. I wouldn't bother, though - life's too short for an attack on artistic license and simple mistake-mongering. What would the movies be like if everything had to be precisely accurate? Basically, there'd be a lot fewer films, and I rather enjoyed this one.

It wasn't just Daniel Day Lewis' jaw-dropping, eyes-pop-out-on-springs performance. Yes, well: we've come to expect that from Day Lewis. It was the central thrust of a film whose point was a dark and complex one. Like it or not, Spielberg and his writers were saying (and you might not), politics is about compromise. Evasion. Tactical retreats. Sometimes, barefaced lies. So we see President Lincoln, so lionised and so exalted for so long, stalling genuine peace efforts so he can get what he wants - the total abolition of slavery enshrined in the Constitution.

Now leave aside the fact that this would probably have happened anyway, and that this lame duck of a Congress didn't need to pass it right then and there for it to become effective. Leave aside the nitpicking. It's a subversive message in its way, and it sits alongside a lot of Spielberg's other works in this respect. Francine Stock has recently come to appreciate his work in a new light, having noticed how all his films try to turn their overt lesson inside-out. Childhood innocence in ET? What about the American police state that tries to kidnap the little bug-eyed guy? Small-town syrup in Super 8? You were left pretty clear about all the domestic feuds and hatreds that seethed under the surface. And so on. I could go on, but don't worry - I won't.

The most sophisticated critiques are much more complex than this. It's not the details (some of them are pretty damn on the button anyway). It's not that this is a flag-waving testament to a certain idea of America. Neither case will hold water. It's the way in which the entire film focuses on one man, when it might have looked at the huge, multi-faceted and multi-racial movement for Emancipation that Lincoln only reluctantly, and only quite late in the day, put himself at the head of. We might have seen the petitioners, the protestors, the speechmakers and the organisers: instead we saw only the figurehead. That would have helped the film, actually, for it would have shown off Lincoln's political skills at their fullest as the President struggled to hold together the coalition he had come to lead so late. Instead, here he is battling southern racists. And we know whose side we're on then, don't we?

Still, it's a story of an epic individual struggle, told in the great American liberal tradition, and all the better as such to bring in crowds who might not know much about the end of the Civil War and the politicking behind its scenes as things stand. And it works on that level. This is the same point this blog made about The Iron Lady in January 2012. There's an inaccurate film which cuts and pastes all sorts of events in unlikely collages. But the central point - that dementia can bring anyone down - soared above those changes to the historical record. Neither film is a U-571, grotesquely bending the whole shape of an entire campaign or chain of events to fit its own bombastic purposes. They have an interior seriousness that at least stirs debate.

That's why some professors will be using Lincoln as a teaching aid. And that's why I enjoyed it so much.

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