The distortion of history serves to rubber stamp current ideology and counterfeit reality. That’s how we get so many people who believe that Franklin Roosevelt’s policies ended the Depression, or that Kennedy was this fierce Cold Warrior. What we know is usually tainted by perspective that’s dependent on geographic consensus.
In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd may indeed claim that “no one has ever been so loved…” while she ignores that the man was just as hated. But when it is acknowledged that discontented Secessionists, at odds with the Federal Union, weren’t considered, only those pledged to the stars ‘n’ stripes, the distortion is correct in a film that revolves around the duality in conflict.
Reluctant as much as he was resilient, stately but also homespun, known to impose longwinded parables on friend and foe alike, it’s that dichotomy that captures a nation divided.
As a young lawyer, Lincoln had argued both sides in fugitive slave cases but realized emancipation as the legal means to balance incompleteness in a nation in the throes of political impasse. As the weight of history breathes down his neck, Democrats choose to oppose emancipation while his own party quakes at the prospect of being labeled “extremists.” Not much has changed.
The proposal that government should determine how much a man should make, and keep any wage that exceeds that designated amount, is both monstrous and a form of slavery. Knowing Spielberg, the activist, I was suspect there might be a tendency to draw correlation between then and now, and within minutes of seeing his movie Lincoln I heard news reports that states had threatened secession because of Obama’s reelection. Okay, but the irony is that numerous border communities in Texas and New Mexico have proposed secession for the past decade – to join Mexico. Do you believe Obama will send armed troops to prevent secession by these overly Hispanic areas? And if not, that sets a precedent. But what’s commendable is that director Spielberg sticks to history, so that Republicans come across as socially aware and it’s Democrats who are portrayed in fear of Lincoln and – I’m quoting the movie here – “niggerizing America.” And it’s important for audiences to realize this. Democrats opposed emancipation. They voted against the Civil Rights voting act which was passed due to congressional Republicans working in unison with LBJ. Republicans never held a majority in the Georgia state house for over sixty years, during which time it was Democrats that placed the Confederate stars ‘n’ bars on the state flag in defiance of Brown vs. the Board of Education. Speaking of which, two Republicans – Dwight Eisenhower and Earl Warren – pushed it to become law.
Confronted by an ever-increasing body count, Daniel Day Lewis fosters a commanding presence as the troubled leader under pressure to consider a negotiated peace. Spielberg should further be commended for establishing the 19th century mindset that contributed first to secession but also emancipation. In two pertinent scenes, he establishes a connection between then and now.
Lincoln asks others for their opinions, and in one incident he speaks of science, specifically Euclid, whose basic structure of geometry includes observations on equality, though in mathematical terms as to how similar things must also be equal things. So we see that science is progressing at a much faster rate than social changes.
Visiting the returned sick and wounded, Lincoln is accompanied by his eldest who witnesses a gurney being disposed of, and it’s reminiscent of that vast shot in Gone With the Wind where the injured spread to the horizon, telling us that medical skills during the Civil War are not much beyond primitive bloodletting.
Spielberg’s greatest triumph in Lincoln is that he shows that leadership doesn’t mean having your way but weighing opinions to achieve maximum consensus in Congress. A leader doesn’t partisanly force a massive health care overhaul on the populace any more than Lincoln sought to impose equality on a nation divided on slavery. But he could provide the legal coverage to protect human rights.
My Lincoln fights vampires – and bigotry.