10 February 2013
|The statue to Lincoln in London's Parliament Square.|
Another filmic contribution to the relatively benign Lincoln myth, though hints of a less ethical, more interesting figure keep the drama alive.
"For the first time, Seward understood the nature of Lincoln’s political genius. He had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking timid backwoods lawyer […]."
This is the key revelation for the wily Secretary of State in Gore Vidal’s tragic historical novel, Lincoln. It is not the kind of revelation that appeals to the Lincoln hagiographers, among them Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose tepid Team of Rivals is supposedly the inspiration for this film.
Thankfully screenwriter Tony Kushner seems to have ditched most of this inspiration, and produced a relatively subtle Lincoln portrait. Except when it’s not at all subtle, and presents a viewer with serious flaws.
The film is mildly mistitled. It’s really about the US House of Representatives vote on the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. A big budget film about politicians wrangling and then voting – its existence is pleasantly surprising in itself, before considering any flaws.
Lincoln (and Seward) are important characters in this drama, but are shown neither as the only ones, nor necessarily vital to the vote, though their decision to bribe congressmen to support them is obviously important to the plot, as is Lincoln’s expressed motivation for getting the amendment passed.
The film might have been much better had it relegated Lincoln to a shadowy presence, important but rarely seen. This might have permitted greater possibility for criticising the saint, along the lines of Vidal’s novel. And I believe in any case it would have strengthened the drama.
As it is, we also get a portrait of the first imperial President, and a curiously sidelong view of the terrible civil war over which he presided.
Slavery is such a great evil that a modern audience is surely surprised there should be any dramatic tension possible over its abolition; certainly the author’s villainous democrats and Confederate leaders are poorly sketched. So where was the resistance to abolishing it earlier? Here Kushner cleverly suggests that Lincoln himself was the problem, which is to say he knows his racist constituents must be brought along with him.
Though Lincoln is the main character, the show is comprehensively stolen by the principled Thaddeus Stevens, who gets to say unkind things about whites that are clearly true, but rarely heard in major films. All the more amazing, then, that the President’s cautious pragmatic approach, almost but not quite unprincipled, was the one that ended slavery.
Here, I think, is the core of the drama. Two different approaches to governing, both converging in greatness at the end.
Unfortunately, Kushner blots both his depiction of the central character and his dramatic tension by having him make a few highly liberal, anti-slavery remarks, as if we needed to be told he was not really a villainous slowcoach. This simplistic signposting swerves the film back into Honest Abe hagiographic territory.
These clumsy moments confirm that without them, the film-makers worried that an audience might actually regard Lincoln as a villain, or at least divided over the evils of slavery.
[Ironically, at least one Lincolnite has suggested that at least one of the anti-slavery speeches gives the false impression that the great man was concerned about making history rather than living through it.]
So it is the unblotted film that I admire, with its suggestions of how slavery lasted so long, and what this might mean for us now.
Other, lesser, aspects of the film are better done. The chaotic conduct of the civil war, the dire effect of the presidency on Mr and Mrs Lincoln personally, and the high camp of congressional horsetrading and speechifying.