Friday, December 7, 2012
Lincoln, Blinkin’ and Nod
Out of misplaced civic duty I finally betook myself to the local cinemaplex and stared at the screen where Lincoln held forth. I had successfully avoided Spielberg for a couple of decades now, and only the curiosity aroused by reams of online debate over whether this was a revolutionary or execrable cultural event brought me thither. Perhaps also the hope that Tony Kushner would work some verbal magic every now and then.
On the positive side, I will say this: Tommy Lee Jones is one heck of an actor. His character was mis-written, more to settle scores with present day radicals than to construct a credible representation of the real Thaddeus Stevens, but what the heck. I would watch TLJ in just about anything. David Straithairn too, although his role was impossible to do much of anything with.
Daniel Day-Lewis? He was just what Spielberg wanted him to be. That’s a professional achievement, but the film might have been better if he had screwed up in an interesting way. And don’t forget the excellent cinematography. When all else fails, admire the production values.
Better to watch than to listen: the score, even played by the Chicago Symphony under their actual conductor Riccardo Muti (Spielberg doesn’t cut corners, does he?), was truly dreadful, thinned-out, dumbed-down, reconditioned Aaron Copland. (Lincoln said that. Abraham Lincoln said that.) Spare us, pleeeeease.
And now we get to the politics. Yes, the film does not romanticize either the confederacy or the war that crushed it. (The momentary exception: Ulysses Grant and his lieutenants tip their hat to the solemn, dignified Robert E. Lee before he turns his mighty steed and rides off into the distance.) The scene where confederate bigwigs have to acknowledge armed black soldiers fighting for the Union is compelling. The openness and ubiquity of racism, and sexism for that matter, is honest. That’s on the plus side.
The other list is a lot longer and weightier. The hagiography of the Great Man is mawkish and embarrassing. I desperately wanted to close my eyes when the camera alighted, as it often did, on the dewey eyes of an admiring black servant so grateful for the gift of freedom that Lincoln was bestowing on him or her. Seriously: how would Spike Lee have played those scenes? I don’t know either, but I would have had more reasons not to doze off.
More to the point, the fundamental premise of the film is simply wrong: slavery in America was not eliminated by the thirteenth amendment. It was dismantled above all by the slaves themselves, who used the opportunity of the war to flee their bondage and, in vast numbers, enlist in the Union cause. This was ratified by the Emancipation Proclamation, which also served to encourage those who had hesitated to act. Moreover, if the amendment had not been passed by the lame duck congress, it would have sailed through the incoming one—the congress that gave us a few years of radical reconstruction.
And that brings up the most important point. In 1865 the central issue was not the legal status of slavery, but (1) to what extent would the North use military force to drive the slavocracy from power in the South, and (2) what economic and political support would be offered to enable ex-slaves to live independently, with opportunity to achieve equality in all aspects of life? Thaddeus Stevens, the wild man whose greatest contribution, according to the movie, was to keep his mouth shut at the critical juncture, was in fact the man of the hour, the national politician who demanded a revolution in race relations. His version of reconstruction, if it had been allowed to do its job, would have spared this country a century and a half of injustice, not to mention the debilitating influence of an entrenched, reactionary caste aristocracy ruling over a large portion of our reunited commonwealth. From the vantage point of the present, the main importance of the assassination of Lincoln is that it may, but only may, have been a crucial setback to the cause championed by Stevens and his comrades.
I hated the way Stevens, in the end the most principled and clear-sighted character in the story, was ridiculed. But like I said, Tommy Lee Jones is one hell of an actor.