On Sunday evening 60 Minutes did a story on Steven Spielberg and his upcoming film, Lincoln. Much of the interview focused on the way Spielberg’s childhood and relationship with his parents, particularly his father, has been reflected in his films. That’s pretty interesting in its own right, but I do wish more time had been spent on Lincoln.
As a filmmaker, Spielberg has never been known for complex characterizations or ambiguous moral messages. (Or realism.) This film is decidedly different in tone, something the director himself acknowledges. It’s not aimed at the summer blockbuster crowd:
Lesley Stahl: There’s not a lot of action. There’s no Spielberg special effects. Steven Spielberg: Right. Lesley Stahl: It’s a movie about process and politics. Have you ever done a movie even remotely– Steven Spielberg: Never. Like this? Lesley Stahl: Not even close. Steven Spielberg: Never. No. I knew I could do the action in my sleep at this point in my career. In my life, the action doesn’t hold any– it doesn’t attract me anymore. Narrator: With only one brief battle scene, the movie’s more like a stage play with lots of dialog as Lincoln cajoles and horse trades for votes.
Spielberg and his team made a pretty fascinating decision, to focus the film on the last months of Lincoln’s life and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, that abolished slavery throughout the United States. The Union military victory was clearly in sight at that point, and Lincoln was trying to make permanent the de facto emancipation brought about by the Emancipation Proclamation and the advance of Federal armies across the South. As we’ve noted before, Lincoln’s commitment to ending chattel bondage permanently by embedding it in the Constitution is evidenced by the fact that he signed the original text of the amendment as passed by both houses of Congress, even though the president has no formal role in approving or endorsing constitutional amendments. The Emancipation Proclamation gets lots of attention, but is also too often misrepresented as the be-all and end-all of emancipation, when it was (as any serious historian will tell you) a temporary, limited, wartime measure, a single, important milestone on the path to real, permanent emancipation. (A path, by the way, that begins with Spoons Butler’s 1861 “contraband” policy at Fort Monroe.) The Emancipation Proclamation is not Lincoln’s legacy; the 13th Amendment rightly is.
Then there’s this, which is an interesting approach, although not one I’m sure I agree with:
Narrator: Although Spielberg took great pains to be historically accurate, he made what some will see as a curious exception in this scene. Steven Spielberg: Some of the Democrats that were voting against the [13th] Amendment, we changed their actual names. So if you go through the names that we call out on the vote, you’re not going to find a lot of those names that conform to history. And that was in deference to the families.
All of this effort and nuance will likely be wasted on the True Southron™ crowd, who are already carping about the film’s likely omission of black Confederates and predicting its dismal failure at the box office. I suspect most of them will refuse to watch the movie, though that will hardly stop them from complaining about its content, real or imagined. While history buffs will be arguing about details — whether this character actually said that, or whether such-and-such scene really happened or is a composite of several actual events — the Southrons will be more vaguely angered that the film exists at all, and that it depicts Lincoln as genuinely committed to ending slavery, willing to push the boundaries of his office and the political landscape to as much as he dared to accomplish that goal. That notion is an anathema to the Southrons, because it puts Lincoln, whatever else his faults, squarely on the right side of the great moral issue facing Americans in the 19th century. Instead they will rehash Lincoln’s casual bigotry against African Americans (true, although almost universal among white Americans in that day), and his willingness to consider voluntary recolonization of freedmen to Africa — an idea that long predated Lincoln’s public life and long survived him, as well. These are, after all, the people who can say with a straight face that Lincoln was “a bigger racist than I ever knew,” and more deserving of moral condemnation than their own ancestors who actually owned slaves. As I wrote several months back,
Confederate apologists often point to these ugly examples and say, “Lincoln believed so-and-so, ” or “Lincoln said such-and-such.” They do this reflexively, as a means of deflecting criticism of slavery in the the South. Such mentions of Lincoln are often narrowly true, but they miss the larger, and much more important, truth. . , which is that Lincoln himself changed and grew over time. The president who told “darkey” jokes also had Frederick Douglass as a visitor to the White House in 1863, the first African American to enter that building not as a servant or laborer, but as a guest. The president who’d said he would be willing not to free a single slave if it would preserve the Union also asked Douglass, in the summer of 1864, to use his contacts to get as many slaves into Union lines as he could before that fall’s presidential election, which Lincoln fully expected to lose. The chief executive who had toyed with the idea of re-colonizing former slaves back to Africa publicly suggested, just days before his death, that suffrage should be extended to at least some freedmen, specifically those who’d served in the Union army.
Lincoln Derangement Syndrome is very real, and Spielberg’s film is certain to push some folks over the edge. So don’t expect much effort from the Confederate Heritage™ crowd to take the movie on its own terms, or to acknowledge anything positive about the 16th president — just a lot of vague complaining about “PC Hollywood” or the “Lincoln myth,” and so on, without much reference to the specific content of the film itself.
For the rest of us, though, it’s looking like this is going to be a film that delves into a part of Lincoln’s life that’s never been brought to the big screen before. I sure it will give historians and bloggers much both to praise and criticize in the coming weeks. My hope is that, like Glory, Lincoln will be a film that, while containing inevitable small historical inaccuracies, will nonetheless tell a greater true story, will loom large in the general public’s understanding of the conflict and inspire a renewed interest in it.
I can’t hardly wait.