Monday, December 10, 2012

Great White Men, Again?: On Lincoln and Our Civil Religion


When you hear the soaring John Williams music telling you to feel, and what to feel, before the scene plays itself out, you know you’re in Stephen Spielberg territory—and that’s exactly where we are with Lincoln, a film which has already generated a greatdeal of discussion and debate among film critics and historians.
Filmmaker Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (the author, of course, of the classicAngels in America) pre-empted criticisms by historians, pronouncing their thanks for historical works (notably Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) that inspired their re-imagining of this story. “You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction,” Spielberg told one group of historians, noting that the job of art is to “go to the impossible places.” But any faithful “resurrection” of the past is, he said, just a “fantasy and a dream.”
So despite many notable efforts at historical verisimilitude, and the inclusion of a central role for the critical historical figure of William Henry Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State) and Thaddeus Stevens (last seen in American film at any length in the horrendously distorted role of Augustus Stoneman in the D. W. Griffith’s historical travesty The Birth of a Nation), it is the filmmaker’s intent to use history to create art; or, in other words, to give us a myth for our times that will tell us something about what is necessary to make a more perfect union.
In all its ugly sausage-making cynicism, the messy everyday business of lining up the votes sometimes achieves transcendent ends. And more power to the filmmakers to give us a redemptive story about politics, and even more so about a politician who would notcompromise on his most fundamental principle—even if he would test constantly the political winds on what would be needed to achieve that principle in practice. That’s a grown-up story about politics (notably here including Lincoln’s own qualms about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation) that many viewers will appreciate. This is Lincoln as political realist, but one who is able to turn that realism towards visionary ends.
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