Reviews of the new Stephen Spielberg-Daniel Day Lewis supermovie “Lincoln” have been mixed, ranging from “best movie of the year” to “I fell asleep while Sally Field was doing her impersonation of Sally Field playing Mary Todd Lincoln in a high school production of ‘Lincoln.’”
Admittedly, the film was riddled with Spielbergian schmaltz and lesser actors were getting blown off the screen by the heavy hitters of Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, but I’m still coming down on the side of not loving, but really liking “Lincoln.”
As many have noted, it should really be called “The Thirteenth Amendment” because that’s all it covers (also, that title sucks). However, this method of focusing laser-like on one particular moment in the life of the central character is a far preferable biopic method. No one wants to sit through the obligatory scene of little Abey Lincoln seeing a slave as a child and saying with his eyes, “I’m going to do something about that someday.”
More interesting than the particulars of the performances or narrative structure was the implicit commentary on the democratic promise. Far from standing up righteously against a clear moral wrong, this Abe Lincoln and his cabinet spend the movie buying votes, cajoling reluctant members of the House of Representatives, and wheedling every last angle they can find in order to pass the amendment that ends slavery. I’ve mentioned this before: we so often see history as destiny when it’s really more a collection of near-misses, murmurs, and the occasional stubborn individual who can see around the curve.
In the end, the fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) holsters his opinions about racial equality in order to win support from fence-fitters. It’s an interesting lesson about how part of progress in a democracy usually involves not only compromise but unappealing sausage-making. The Democrats shook down savings from medical providers with the promise of keeping a public option out of the health care bill. Lyndon Johnson basically threatened to scalp members of his own party to get Civil Rights legislation over the finish line. Social Security began as a sliver of its current incarnation and failed to cover many women and minority groups. Imperfect democracy, “Lincoln” concludes, is still the best thing we’ve got. The process is messy, and we cut deals in order to move things forward bit by incremental bit.
Of course, there is a flip side to that message, which is what happened after the film ends. Andrew Johnson, one of America’s worst presidents, did everything in his power to stifle the progress of Reconstruction. By the election of 1876, just over a decade after Lincoln’s assassination, the Republicans found themselves in a close-call election and agreed to end Reconstruction if their man Rutherford Hayes got the top office. The result was dooming the American South to 80-plus years of apartheid, racial terror, and enforced poverty for blacks. It took the original sin of slavery and gave it a rebirth as a permanent campaign of violence and racism. Now, 135 years after the end of Reconstruction, our politics are still largely driven by that same racial divide as voters organize themselves according to where their ancestors likely stood in the 1860s or the 1960s.
So you never know: when Thaddeus Stevens tells Abraham Lincoln that they should confiscate all the land and property of the Southern gentry and redistribute it among freedman, maybe he was exactly right and we’ve been living in the long hangover of that mistake ever since. Occasionally, the radicals are just the prescient.