Slightly Longer Thoughts on 'Lincoln'
Thinking more on this, and reading on the critiques, I am more of the mind that Lincoln is great though deeply flawed. To repeat, I measure it by Hollywood's ugly relationship with The Lost Cause. Two of the industry's most revolutionary films—Birth Of A Nation and Gone With The Wind—are right out of the neo-Confederate school. Besides Glory, Lincoln is the first big-budget film I've seen repudiate that idea. In fact, the opening and closing scenes are the antithesis of the Lost Cause.
There's also something deeply beautiful about how the film is shot. There are moments in the Congress when you feel like you're peering into a painting. When Lincoln is seated talking to four soldiers—two black, two white—he feels ghostly, wraithlike. It's not so much that that these people seem to be talking as they seem to be in communion. Lincoln maintains that beautiful, walking-dead sense throughout the movie—so much so that I was actually disappointed we get that final shot of him walking down the long hall at the end. It felt like the heavy-handed version of something the film had, for much of its running time, handled with a light touch: Abe Lincoln the bluesman.
With that said, the movies take on radicalism is a problem. And it's not just a political problem, but an artistic one. I think we should steer away from dictating to artists which stories they should tell, but once someone commits to a story, then it becomes fair to then judge them on it. The story Kushner and Spielberg commit to is the legislative process involved in passing the 13th amendment. Lincoln at that point is at his most radical, but you don't get any sense at all that he was once a conservative, who was actually wrong about stuff.
It was pointed out to me that by the time portrayed in the film, Lincoln had abandoned his love of colonization. That's true, but Lincoln's support of colonization—which he held to for vast majority of his political life—is an insight into who Lincoln was. There's no sense in the film that Lincoln, for years, tried to push compensated emancipation on the loyal border states and got nowhere. Lincoln fashioned himself a disciple of Henry Clay, so it's no surprise that he evinced Clay's twin positions on slavery. But those positions proved to be wrong in every way—morally and practically. One of the most instructive scenes in Eric Foner's biography of Lincoln, The Fiery Trial, is the president upbraiding a group of black leaders and trying to sell them on colonization and having his words disseminated by the press. This was the original Sista Souljah—except it utterly failed.
What Lincoln doesn't want to admit is that the radicals were right, morally and politically. When it comes to wisdom, better late than never, as they say. But it was radicals like Frederick Douglass—long before Lincoln, and long before the vast majority of white men charged with leading the war—who understood that this was war against slavery. Lincoln was late on that one. We don't need to see these events depicted for the script to evince some awareness of them. When Lincoln upbraids Thaddeus Stevens for offering bad, overly idealistic advice on how to end slavery, Stevens could just has easily upbraided Lincoln for shocking naiveté regarding how much the South depended on slavery.
In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who'd sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes.The film conveys none of this, opting instead for generic, archetypal characters. Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben) is frequently seen sitting with the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field), in the balcony of the House of Representatives, silently serving as a moral beacon for any legislator who looks her way.
"I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote 'noble cause,' and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.