Sunday, April 28, 2013


(Steven Spielberg, USA, 2012)

I'm a little unsure as to how to respond to Lincoln.  On the one hand, it's a great story told extraordinarily well.  Kushner's script is a thing of beauty, and Spielberg stays faithful to its acute emotional power and brilliant craft.  The cast is wonderful, from the masterful DDL on down the line.  Everyone involved with the making of the film seems sufficiently enthralled and reverent of the subject matter.  It's an unselfish movie, taking inspiration from its subject's mythical status:  possessed of noble, lofty goals and possessing a saving, humanizing sense of humor.

On the other hand, Lincoln suffers many of the pitfalls of historical mythologizing: Abraham Lincoln as America's preeminent secular saint.  As it must, it attempts to deal with the great and terrible question of slavery, the essential conundrum and crime of American society.  But like Django Unchained, it doesn't fully reconcile itself to that fact.  Tarantino's movie misses the point by being fatuous about atrocities, and Spielberg's by his tendency towards sentimentality and myth-making.

It's true that this tendency is mostly kept in check by the integrity of Kushner's rigorously researched and deeply sensitive script.  Lincoln the character is portrayed as a complex, wounded, and often uncertain man, certainly exceptional, but limited by his times and by his own troubled humanity.  But Spielberg can't help himself from getting schematic with his storytelling, bullet-pointing the major emotional and moral beats.  Don't get me wrong - nobody bullet-points as gracefully and effectively as Spielberg.  But at the end of the day, it's still a less-than-inspired way to tell the story.

 The best scene of the film (and it is a film of many great scenes) comes towards the end, when Lincoln has a one-on-one with Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who has become a successful business woman.  Keckley makes the point that even for many anti-slavery partisans in the North, the population of American blacks, slave or free, are mostly unwanted.  Lincoln concedes that this is so, and Keckley asks if Lincoln himself wants "them."  His answer is a perfect encapsulation of the character.  He seems to want to evade her question, responding that he doesn't know "any of you, really" - a humble admission that is also a sly dodge, and a kind of misdirection.  As to what will come next, after freedom, he admits to not knowing, any more than she does, and wonders what black people will "be to the Nation."  Keckley accepts this, more or less, but also tells Lincoln that her son died fighting for the Union, and by extension freedom, and freedom must be a precondition for any further ideas of what society may be beyond emancipation.  Lincoln says that he "reckons he'll get used to you" - again revealing someone who himself is far from saintly, and who recognizes that allegiance to reason and certain ideals is what can save people from themselves, and perhaps save society too.  This is the crucial insight of the movie - Lincoln didn't always know what was best, or what was right, but he was willing to listen and reason.  The overall picture that emerges is too pure and righteous by half, but it is in moments like this that the details of life manage to give lie to the myth of Lincoln, and through art, reveal something more. 

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