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"Lincoln:" A First Rate Second Rate Film

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My wife and I went to see Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" last night. Both of us came away disappointed and surprised this morning when we discovered that the film has received multiple Golden Globe nominations.

As a successful exercise in hagiography, Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of a saintly Abraham Lincoln was well done. In those whitewashed terms, Lewis convincingly embodied a simple, straight-forward, wise man obsessed not with image or popularity, but with the passage of the 13 th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Lewis' Lincoln was witty, self-deprecatory, an eloquent homespun speaker, and a charming raconteur.   Above all he was a single-minded abolitionist. In fact, apart from their vastly differing charm quotients, there was little to separate President Lincoln from his ally, the caustic and belligerent Thaddeus Stevens (overplayed by Tommy Lee Jones) -- the abolitionist chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But as many have observed, Abraham Lincoln was also a racist who openly thought of whites as intrinsically superior to African Americans. Howard Zinn points out that candidate Lincoln was anti-slavery when speaking in the North. He was white supremacist campaigning in the South. In the end he advocated sending former slaves back to Africa. As he said repeatedly, his main purpose as president was not to free the slaves or to pass the 13 th Amendment, but to preserve the union even if that meant keeping blacks enslaved forever. Moreover, it's impossible to distance Lincoln from the wholesale slaughter of the Civil War and its scorched earth campaigns. Even according to Spielberg's portrait of St. Abraham, Lincoln was willing to sacrifice untold numbers of other people's sons to his "noble cause;" but he was stubborn in refusing to offer up his own. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it well when he described Lincoln as "a first rate second rate man."

Similarly, because of the Day Lewis performance and its unflinching depiction of the absolute slaughter of the War between the States, Spielberg's film might well be described as a first rate second rate movie. It is second rate because it leaves us with an eighth grade understanding of its subject. It fails to deepen our grasp not only of the complexities of the man Lincoln, but also those of his historical context and the important working class struggle that was represented by the United States' Civil War. As a result, we're left with "feel-good" images of elderly white Republicans embracing and singing "Union Forever" because the cause of freedom and equality for all has been advanced by Constitutional amendment.

In reality, the purpose of the newly formed Republican Party was not to free blacks [who remain(ed) largely despised by whites] but to advance the cause of 19 th century industrialists, railroaders, and mining interests.   Those exclusively white cabals were part of the struggle between old money and new that had reached its apex in Europe during the revolutionary year of 1848. Across the European world, the old money interests were the land owning agriculturalists that had ruled since the onset of the middle ages. The "new money" people were the products of the Industrial Revolution. In their eyes, it was their turn to call the shots, and they were willing to go to the mat with their rivals, whatever the consequences or cost in working class corpses.

In terms of such ferment, the Civil War represented the mid- 19 th century struggle in Europe "crossing the pond." The Civil War was really about land. Specifically, it was about what to do with the vast acreage recently stolen from Mexico in the war of 1846. Would that territory be used for plantations worked by slaves? Or would it be used for industry, mining, and railroads? Northerner industrialists were determined to use the territory for their own profit. So they sought abolition of slavery in the New West. Republicans like Lincoln also passed legislation subsidizing railroaders as they colonized the land for purposes of moving eastward the spoils of the Mexican War. That form of abolition and subsidy was what precipitated the South's secession from the Union.

So the Civil War really wasn't primarily about slavery, but about land and hegemony. Nonetheless, slavery was deeply part of the struggle.   Eliminating that "peculiar institution" played a major role in weakening the competitive advantage the old money had. Abolition would also create a mobile labor force providing a surplus of workers to fill job openings and suppress wages in northern factories. The exigencies of emerging industrial capitalism had made it clear that slaves were more expensive to maintain than wage labor. Hence northern joy at the passage of Amendment 13.

Similarly slave rebellions were co-opted by the new captains of industry. Thus insurgent slaves represented a working class contribution to the mid-nineteenth century changing of the hegemonic guard in the United States. Slave interests melded with those of the industrialists opposing the old aristocracy based on plantations and forced labor. In a sense, in fighting for the North, slaves were going from the fire into the frying pan -- from a more egregious form of servitude into a softer form of bondage.

None of this historical context is even hinted at in the Spielberg film. As a result, viewers are left no more enlightened about history or the causes of current struggles than they were before their 150 minute investment. Instead Spielberg perpetuates the myth that significant change comes from the top. He shows us the familiar and misleading portrait of U.S. leaders primarily responding to ideals of freedom and equality and the needs of "the people" rather than to those of the moneyed classes who use "the people" as cannon fodder to advance their venal concerns.

Certainly there were idealistic abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens. But Abraham Lincoln was not one of them. He was more complex, ruthless and beholden to his patrons than Spielberg allows. Had the director portrayed that Lincoln, had he not erased class differences and conflicts from his portrait, his film would have been first rate indeed.

 

Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)
 

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I'm currently reading Stone and Kutzner's Untold H... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Thursday, Dec 13, 2012 at 11:23:35 PM
Absolutely agree See my assessment of Lincoln in m... by Gary Brumback on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 7:56:35 AM
What did you think of the film? Did it help you mo... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 6:07:27 AM
Yes, We saw it too, and left... by Herbert Calhoun on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 6:12:20 AM
Besides the performances of Day Lewis and Sally Fi... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 6:43:14 AM
Thank you for your valuable article. I don't think... by Marta Steele on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 9:19:37 AM
Who was the greatest president? I hardly know how ... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 10:05:50 AM
FDR wanted to be king, and pretty much succeeded b... by Richard Pietrasz on Saturday, Dec 15, 2012 at 12:02:26 AM
Richard, I think your comparison of FDR and Hitler... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Saturday, Dec 15, 2012 at 3:10:35 PM
If you're identifying the New Deal with government... by Jim Arnold on Sunday, Dec 16, 2012 at 2:12:09 AM
emancipation did NOT include blacks under the dire... by Lester Shepherd on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 10:08:04 AM
I felt obliged to see the film precisely because I... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 11:54:51 AM
Hollywood is all about money.  I frankly have... by Lester Shepherd on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 5:14:40 PM
As a teacher, I consider the benefit of Hollywood ... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Saturday, Dec 15, 2012 at 7:06:31 AM
Admittedly, Lincoln was a complex character and ha... by mhenriday on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 1:07:23 PM
I agree with you, Henn. My main point in the artic... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Friday, Dec 14, 2012 at 1:39:21 PM
It's true, as the neo-Confederates say, that the w... by Jim Arnold on Saturday, Dec 15, 2012 at 3:47:33 AM
Do you agree though, Jim, that the Civil War was a... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Saturday, Dec 15, 2012 at 7:02:09 AM
Yes, Mike, I agree -- a civil war clothed by The N... by Jim Arnold on Saturday, Dec 15, 2012 at 10:07:10 AM
Jim & Mike...excellent exchange...might I sugg... by Ethan Allen on Monday, Dec 17, 2012 at 6:11:02 PM
Would be nice to see this review in mainstream new... by Katy Kay on Saturday, Dec 22, 2012 at 4:20:29 AM