Lincoln in Hollywood, from Griffith to Spielberg

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 I.

ABOUT HALFWAY through Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary new film, Daniel Day-Lewis, playing Abraham Lincoln, sits in a nearly deserted telegraph office at the War Department, quietly conversing with two young military telegraphists. It is January 1865. One of the soldiers is a trained engineer, and Lincoln begins a quiet discourse on Euclid, whose writings he had memorized decades earlier and now quotes verbatim: “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” A classical axiom about mathematical equality becomes a political commentary on human equality.

It is a powerful scene and it is utterly plausible. President Lincoln visited that particular telegraph office constantly during the war’s climax, so as to receive the latest news of everything from election results to battle casualties, and to confer with Edwin Stanton, his indispensable secretary of war. Lincoln was approachable and talked as easily with ordinary soldiers as he did with Stanton. His highly deliberate mind was focused on the evolving idea of equality. He wanted a constitutional amendment that would crush American slavery once and for all. And having studied Euclid seriously since the late 1840she carried a copy of the Elements in his saddlebags while riding the judicial circuitLincoln was as apt to allude to him in explaining his own ideas as he was to quote from Shakespeare or Burns. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which oddly receives a large credit from the film-makers as a major source for the film, says next to nothing about Lincoln’s attachment to Euclid’s principles of reason; most of the other recent Lincoln books mention Euclid in passing when they mention him at all. But Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, get it, and they get why it is important and appositejust as they get a great deal more.

Lincoln is a remarkable historical rendering, offering a deft, knowledgeable depiction of Lincoln as well as a shrewd handling of the politics of the Civil War and emancipation. But the film’s larger importance lies elsewhere. For a century and more, American culture has been polluted by outrageous and pernicious portrayals of the war that apologize for the Confederacy and, by extension, for slavery. A few exceptionally popular books and movies have played a large part in sustaining, sometimes decades after they first appeared, what American historians know as the myth of the Lost Cause, vaunting the slaveholding South. With its gallant white Southrons and its happy-go-lucky slaves, living an idyll heavy with the scent of blooming magnolia, it is an all-American variant of the larger genre of reactionary sentimentalism that is as old as the Romantics.

The myth, in turn, has helped to perpetuate long discredited views of the war and its origins that first appeared in writings by the Confederacy’s apologists after 1865. Not the least of these is the twisted proposition, advanced by President Jefferson Davis in rebuttal to Lincoln, that states’ rights and not slavery was the primary issue that led to secession and war. Much has changed over the decades in Americans’ perceptions of the Civil Wara poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center showed that respondents who had a negative response to displays of the Confederate flag outnumbered those who had a positive response by a margin of three to one; but the same survey showed that nearly half of those polled believed that the war was mainly about states’ rights, substantially more than those who named slavery.

Gone with the Wind, the book and the movie, is the most familiar work in the Lost Cause canon, but the most influential, artistically as well as historically, has been D.W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece The Birth of a Nation. Released in 1915 and famously (although apocryphally) described by President Woodrow Wilson as “like writing history with lightning,” The Birth of a Nation brilliantly depicts a power-mad and merciless North vanquishing a gallant Old South. Pillaged by black Union soldiers, then ravished by bestial ex-slaves and tyrannical Yankee politicians during Reconstruction, Griffith’s South seems broken and undone, until the courageous godly white gladiators of the Ku Klux Klan overthrow the vile oppressors. Lincoln, a significant figure in the middle of the film, appears bizarrely as a Southern sympathizer, whose murder paved the way for all of the horrors visited upon the defeated Confederacy. And although it may be difficult to believe today, the film set the cultural tone for what was becoming the conventional wisdominside the academy as well as among Americans at largeabout the Civil War era. The war came to be perceived as a tragic, avoidable conflict that led to a cruel and corrupt imposition of rapacious Negro equality on subjugated Southern whites. What the proSouthern Dunning School (headed by William A. Dunning of Columbia University) was to historical scholarship on the war and its aftermath, The Birth of Nation was to American popular culture.

After decades of contrary evidence, advanced first by pioneering black scholars led by W.E.B. Du Bois, and then more generally beginning in the 1950s, the mythology incarnated in Griffith’s epic film is now regarded by historians as racist pro-Confederate propaganda. Yet in American popular and commercial cultureand not simply in the Stars-and-Bars-waving neo-Confederate precincts of the Deep Souththe reactionary view has persisted, coloring works such as, for example, Ronald Maxwell’s execrable pro-rebel film Gods and Generals, which appeared in 2003. Not every important Civil War film drama has fit this description, of course. John Frankenheimer’s made-for-television film Andersonville, about the notoriously cruel Confederate prison camp, exploded the idealization of Southern gallantry and explored the question of individual responsibility for war crimes nearly a century before the Nuremberg trials. Ken Burns’s popular PBS series The Civil War, a documentary, brought the war to life for millions of viewers, and its account of the war, though often cloyingly sentimental, was at least informative, more even-handed, and replete with the subject of slavery. Edward Zwick’s Glory, a fine if flawed film about the 54th Massachusetts regiment of Negro soldiers, departed even more sharply from the old pro-Confederate conventions, but was more about black heroism and civil rights than about issues of slavery and secession. Otherwise no film-maker with talent approaching Griffith’s has attempted directly to discredit The Birth of a Nation and the entire Lost Cause romance with a grand cinematic counterstatement.

Until now, that is. Spielberg and Kushner have done so, completely and brilliantly. More than a superb movie, Lincoln is itself a monument in American cultural history.

 

LET US CLEAR AWAY some of the things that Lincoln makes up or gets wrong. (The prolific Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has pointed out a few of them on The Daily Beast.) Near the start of the film, there is an absurd scene of two white Yankee soldiers and one black one, early in 1865, in an army camp, reciting back to Lincoln the entirety of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln certainly visited the front, but no common soldiersor most likely any other Americans, Lincoln includedwould have memorized the address in 1865, as it only became revered decades after the war. The film shows Lincoln’s young son Tad playing with some glass negatives of slaves on loan from the photographer Alexander Gardner. As Holzer notes, Gardner would never have permitted anyone, let alone a child, to fool around with his precious, fragile negatives; and more to the point, the pictures in question (familiar to any historian of slavery) were not taken by Gardner.

Lincoln focuses on the passage in the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. This was Spielberg’s wisest decision, as it allows the exploration of how Lincoln deployed his most consequential gifts as a politician. It also gives Spielberg an opportunity to dramatize important and sometimes subtle political divisions in the free-labor North, which made Lincoln’s tasks much more difficult. But the film’s nasty exchanges on the House floor, notably a climactic one between the New York City anti-war Democrat Fernando Wood and the formidable Republican warhorse from Pennsylvania Thaddeus Stevens, are fanciful. The film concentrates heavily on Stevens’s admittedly significant role in getting the amendment passed, but to the point of making his role seem larger than it actually was. There is a Hollywood pause as the House begins its final day of debate, and some free black citizens take seats in the gallery, supposedly the first time this ever occurredwhich it was not.

More matter-of-factly, the film shows Mary Todd Lincoln sitting in the gallery, alongside her ex-slave seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, and toting up the final tally on the amendment vote, all of which is preposterous. (As written by Kushner, the Keckley character barely reveals the historical Keckley, who was very active in Washington black relief efforts as the founder of the local Contraband Relief Association, which aided recently freed ex-slaves, including wounded soldiers.) Lincoln’s upstairs office in the White House looked very much the way the movie presents it, except that Lincoln displayed two engraved portraits, one of Andrew Jackson and one of the English liberal member of Parliament John Bright. For some strange reason, Spielberg has featured a portrait of William Henry Harrisona Whig, as Lincoln had been, but a faux military-hero president who lasted in office only one month and whom Lincoln, although a supporter, did not exactly venerate.

There is also something historically off kilter about Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal. It is not in his voice, which is appropriately high-pitched, or in his accent, or in his facial expressions, but rather in his movements, his gait, and in some scenes his color. The film’s final moments bring to life a famous photograph and show Lincoln on the Capitol steps delivering his majestic Second Inaugural, gesticulating like any stump speaker; in fact, when delivering a speech, Lincoln kept his arms and hands notably still and jerked his head for emphasis. And although Lincoln aged quickly during his presidency, and admitted to how the stress had fatigued him to the marrow, he lost none of his formidable physical strength until the day he died: one doctor who attended at his autopsy was amazed to look down upon what he called the well-rounded muscles of a powerful athlete. DayLewis’s Lincoln, though, particularly late in the film, looks stooped, as if physically enfeebled by his burdens, and uncannily bathed in an ethereal white glow. If Spielberg wanted his star to convey Lincoln’s exhaustion, he overdid it. If he meant to convey Lincoln’s suffering saintliness, the effect undercuts rather than enhances the film’s central theme, which is to discard the myth of Saint Abraham in favor of Lincoln the master politician. Not even Abraham Lincoln could have been both a pol and a saint.

 

STILL, Lincoln includes scenes and narrative touches that might look like contrivances but are stunningly precise. The Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, really did obtain, over his mother’s objections, an army commission and an assignment to General Grant’s staff, and he was present for General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. On the evening of April 14, 1865, young Tad Lincoln really was attending a performance of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at Grover’s National Theater, when the curtain suddenly closed and a man frantically announced that the president had been shot a little more than three blocks away at Ford’s Theater.

Beside these historical grace notes, there are ample thematic justifications for some of the tampering with history in what is, after all, a historical drama and not history itself. The silly early battle scene at the front at least establishes the grand themes of slavery, freedom, and race that need statement and restatement amid the movie’s welter of political feint, maneuver, and bargaining. It also brings blacks who are not servants into a movie that is necessarily fixated on the White House and the Capitol, and into a crucially important story of the exercise of government power that involved white male politicians almost exclusively. And it pokes at right-thinking stereotypes by having one black soldier attack Lincoln for not doing more for blacks, while another, practically rolling his eyes, expresses gratitude and even comradeship with the president.

 

SOME HISTORIANS on the left have complained that Lincoln slights blacks by including only passive black characters, and by ignoring all that the runaway slaves and free black abolitionists did to achieve emancipation and abolition. Taking nothing away from Frederick Douglass, the accusation is as unfair as it is literal-minded. Lincoln is not an epic treatment of emancipation; it is an illustration of Lincoln’s character and leadership through a depiction of how he and his allies managed to win congressional approval of the Thirteenth Amendment, a story in which blacks played no role at all.

Other lazy writers and critics have hailed Lincoln as a brief for compromise in American politics delivered at a time of stalemate in Washington. This is a nonsensical reading of the film, of the history that it portrays, and of Abraham Lincoln. The passing of the Thirteenth Amendment involved no compromise whatsoever. Lincoln and the congressional leaders simply obtained, with every trick in the book, the votes they needed, and thereby achieved everything they set out to achieve. Lincoln was never prone to compromise; he was willing to lead the nation into a civil war rather than compromise on his and his party’s fundamental purpose, which was to halt the extension of slavery. Lincoln fought as hard as he could to get his way, even if it required deviousness in strategy as well as tactics. He did not always prevail, and he sometimes had to settle for partial victories. But the idea of Lincoln, or any great American president, going into political battle with compromise on his mind is outlandish, a disservice to the practice as well as the history of American democracy.

 

THE FOCUS ON Thaddeus Stevens (played wonderfully by Tommy Lee Jones, even though he speaks in too much of a Southern accent for a character born and raised in New England) is among the most important of Spielberg’s re-touchings. During the fight over the Thirteenth Amendment, Republicans, none more conspicuously than the radical Stevens, tempered their views and insisted that the amendment would produce equality before the law but not perfect social and political equality between blacks and whites. Stevens’s and his colleagues’ prudence made it possible for more conservative border-state holdouts and even some Democrats to vote for the amendment. But Lincoln goes further, making much of Stevens’s maneuvering in order to present it as an exemplary instance of duplicity achieving goodin this case the completion of slavery’s abolition, a cause for which Stevens had fought his entire political life.

Unlike some high-minded radicals whose purism took precedence over politics, Stevens knew how to get things done. And, like Lincoln, he knew that passing the Thirteenth Amendment could not involve compromise, whether construed as splitting the difference between two contesting sides or as revising one’s principles. It involved exploiting all of democracy’s dark but often essential arts, including dispensing favors of patronage to congressmen and hedging public remarks to the edge of mendacity. These arts, especially as wielded by Lincoln and his other indispensable political ally, Secretary of State William H. Seward, yielded slavery’s abolition. Without that monumental victory, the hard-nosed Republican Stevens could never have picked up the fight to achieve his highest principles, including full black citizenship and racial equality. So Stevens, in Lincoln, emblemizes politics in contrast to the sanctimonious anti-political stance that passed itself off (and still does) as righteous progressivism.

And this brings us back to Griffith. One of The Birth of a Nation’s two archvillains is Congressman Austin Stoneman, a vain, arrogant, vengeful man who leads the way in subjecting the white South to licentious Negro rule. Stoneman’s appearance (including a clumsy black wig) leaves little doubt that Griffith based Stoneman on Thaddeus Stevens. But the Thaddeus Stevens of Spielberg and Kushner, a fascinating pragmatic radical, turns Lincoln into an overt repudiation of The Birth of a Nation.

For almost exactly a hundred years, beginning with Griffith's masterful film, Hollywood has been complicit -- no, salient -- in promoting pro-Confederate falsehoods about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Contrary to one widespread tale, Griffith never repented for the views he expressed in The Birth of a Nation, even after the film received stinging criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights advocates. More than a decade later, he did direct an early talkie biographical film titled simply Abraham Lincoln, which at least acknowledged Lincoln's anti-slavery politics. But The Birth of a Nation remained his most celebrated and popular film, and established a moonlight-and-magnolia view of the slave South and the war that, with an enormous boost from Gone with the Wind, has pervaded American culture. Now Spielberg and Kushner and everyone involved in Lincoln have at last declared, "Enough!"

II.

BY TACKLING Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg invited direct comparisons of his work with John Ford’s as well as Griffith’s. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, long slighted by film historians, was a worthy effort, especially notable for Walter Huston’s performance in the title role; but Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda and released in 1939, was one of the director’s greatest films, every frame a thing of singular beauty. “It immediately enthralled me with the perfection of its harmony,” Sergei Eisenstein wrote in 1945, “and the rare skill with which it employed all the expressive means at its disposal.” Lincoln also begs comparison with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, starring Raymond Massey and released a year latera much less distinguished film, whose director, John Cromwell, was not a giant, but which was based on a Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Robert E. Sherwood and earned two Oscar nominations, including Massey for best actor. Together, these filmsThe Birth of a Nation, Abraham Lincoln, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Abe Lincoln in Illinoisform a separate genre of Lincolnian cinema. And as a work of history as well as an entertainment, Spielberg’s depiction of Lincoln surpasses them all.

Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation appears only episodically in the first half of the film, but he is a pivotal character. Hated during the war by Confederates and Northern Copperheads alike, his image among white Southerners had softened over the ensuing decades. Glorified by his blood sacrifice, Lincoln stood, according to his Confederate and pro-Confederate enemies, as the inveterate foe of those they dubbed maliciously the Radical Republicansa magnanimous peacemaker and healer, who supposedly would have done his utmost to reunite the North and the South without recrimination. After seizing upon the conciliatory passages of the Second Inaugural“with malice toward none, with charity for all,” “let us bind up the nation’s wounds”Lost Cause Southerners virtually excised the address’s fiery anti-slavery passages and invented a counterfactual Lincoln who would have prevented the political chaos and oppression that required the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations. Had it not been for the madman Booth, they claimed, the South would have re-joined the Union with much of its old order of white supremacy and black subjugation intact, all supposedly under Lincoln’s benevolent leadership.

Oddly, the screenwriter Kushner seemed to endorse this view, at least in part, in a recent interview on National Public Radio. He has since repudiated any such suggestion, but the incident proved how easily even well-informed Americans can stray into Lost Cause tropesand how even astute film-makers may lose touch with the implications of their own work. In any event, it is impossible to know what Lincoln’s Reconstruction policies would have been. Certainly, he hoped to achieve reunion as quickly and painlessly as possible. But he also sympathized with the situation of the millions of freed blacks, at least some of whom he wanted to see enfranchisedan idea that was anathema to the defeated Confederates. Having won the Civil War, Lincoln wanted peace and reconciliationbut peace on the terms of the victorious North, not of the defeated white South.

It was Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who came closest to favoring what the ex-Confederates truly desired. An honest Lost Cause history of the period would have celebrated the ill-tempered, racist Johnson in his losing battle with the Republicans in Congress. But Johnson has always been a singularly unheroic figure. Substituting Lincoln the martyr as the white South’s truest comrade paradoxically ennobled the Lost Cause by aligning it with Lincoln’s sentimental transfiguration into an American Christ. The substitution in turn permitted younger white Southerners such as Griffith (whose father had been a Confederate Army colonel) simultaneously to love Lincoln and loathe blacks.

Played by the future silent-film director Joseph Henabery, Lincoln appears on several occasions in the first half of The Birth of a Nation, signing with great sadness the initial call for Union volunteers after Fort Sumter, pardoning a Confederate army officer, and finally settling into his rocker at Ford’s Theater at the start of a meticulously reconstructed scene of the assassination. Although this Lincoln commands the Union army, he seems to do so with reluctance. He is kindhearted enough to be swayed by a Southern mother’s pleas. The defeated Confederates receive news of his killing with horror, as the passing of what one of them calls the South’s best friend. There is nothing in the film about Lincoln and slavery, or Lincoln and secession; nothing about the Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation that provided for recruitment of black soldiers. There is only Lost Cause falsehood, no matter how accurate the scenery and the costumes.

In the North, Lincoln was revered as the Great Emancipator as well as the savior of the Union. By the 1930s, however, Lincoln’s image had evolved into one of an uncommon common man, a nobody who by dint of his rail-splitter’s physical strength, his homespun wit, and his lawyerly purposeful mind rose to become a great American. The change owed most to the folksy opening two volumes of Carl Sandburg’s mammoth biography, The Prairie Years, which appeared in 1926. Drawing on earlier down-home writings about Lincoln by the journalist and author Ida Tarbell, and utilizing considerable invention and an unblushing populist mock-poetic style, Sandburg created an almost mystical Lincoln who embodied the all-American virtues of diligence, unpretentiousness, generosity, and more. Sandburg’s Lincoln was larger than life, a rough-hewn Everyman, a political leader who transcended politics, a complicated figure who was also the archetype of American democracy. (Sandburg’s later four volumes, The War Years, were much more tough-minded and still repay serious reading, but they were not completed until 1939.)

Griffith, in planning his Lincoln project, tried to hire the poet as a consultant, but Sandburg’s proposed fee was too stiff. To write the script, Griffith instead retained Stephen Vincent Benét, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning epic poem, John Brown’s Body, had appeared in 1928. Yet Abraham Lincoln amply reflects Sandburg’s influence, with nearly half the film devoted to Lincoln’s pre-presidential years. Walter Huston interprets the character as a crude yokel who nevertheless reads books, as he re-enacts set pieces from the book, notably young Lincoln’s romance with the doomed Ann Rutledge.

There are random politics in Abraham Lincoln, a mishmash of major events (with strange slips in chronology) in the film’s second half. Huston as Lincoln briefly mentions slaveryGriffith could not ignore the Emancipation Proclamationbut he speaks obsessively, in hokey stentorian tones, about saving the Union, thereby perpetuating the falsehood that the battle over the Union (or states’ rights) ever had any meaning independent of the slavery issue. No blacks appear in the movie, except for one white actor in blackface who provides a moment of crude minstrel humor. As ever a master of set design, Griffith included some visually arresting sequences, including in the War Department telegraph office that Spielberg may have borrowed eighty years later. But there is very little drama in these political scenes, which devolve into a series of Important Moments, as stiff as wax-figure tableaux. Lincoln the clumsy self-made man is finally redeemed by his insistence on not punishing the South and by his martyrdom. Although the purport of Abraham Lincoln is entirely different from that of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith was still clinging to the conventional white Southern myth of Lincoln the Healer.

Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, a film of striking visual allure, is interested entirely in creating a mythic character and imparts little that is of historical or biographical value. With a screenplay by the prolific Lamar Trotti, who built a small specialty writing dramatizations of American history, Ford limited the film strictly to Lincoln’s early adulthood in Illinois in the 1830s. Its opening scene shows LincolnHenry Fonda made up to look like the young Abeon the hustings, having just entered politics, running for the state legislature. But there is only scant mention of Lincoln’s views about national economic policy, and only once in the entire film is there a mention of slavery, and it is fleeting.

Ford develops his Sandburgian pastoral Lincoln in a series of vignettes at a Fourth of July fair, where Lincoln judges a pie-making contest, wins the rail-splitting contest, and (with some good-natured cheating) captains his team to victory in a tug-of-war. His shambling American character established, Fonda’s Lincoln single-handedly faces down a lynch mob before he successfully defends, with a mixture of country wit and lawyerly acumen, two brothers falsely accused of murder. The last of these stories drew freely on an actual case that Lincoln won much later, in 1858, but in Ford’s hands, as ever, the truth recedes before the legend. And that legend’s lodestar is a simple and unblinking truth that surpasses even what Lincoln had mastered in reading Blackstone’s Commentaries: “I may not know much about the law,” Ford’s Lincoln says, “but I know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

There is a view, advanced by the film critic and John Ford expert Tag Gallagher, that Young Mr. Lincoln implicitly upholds the ideal of racial equality but remains circumspect because anything more overt would have offended movie distributors and ticket buyers, especially in the South. Lincoln’s courageous suppression of the lynch mob in Ford’s film, for example, must have had clear resonance with the continuing racial injustices of the twentieth century, even though in the film the intended victims were white. (In the 1930s, more than a hundred lynchings of blacks were reported in the United States.) But if Ford’s view of Lincoln and his times did not embrace the Lost Cause myth, his film failed to develop any clear historical alternative, dwelling instead on the symbolism of a noble commoner who, although portrayed in his historical setting, exists outside of time, placed, as Gallagher puts it, into a “static determined,” where all that must happen does happen. It is no surprise that the year after Young Mr. Lincoln’s release, Ford would direct Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, in the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

 

ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS, judged strictly as history, was the best of the Lincoln films until now, which is not saying much. Raymond Massey, with only minimal make-up, looks uncannily like the pictures of his character. Carrying the story through to Lincoln’s election to the presidency, the film covers some set pieces at some length, above all the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and relates Lincoln’s views on the all-important issue of slavery. That the main issue at hand is slavery is never in doubt. There is even a fictionalized scene of John Brown surrendering at Harpers Ferry (out of proper chronological sequence, of course), as one of Brown’s sons portentously remarks as he is dying that someone else must finish the job that Brown had started. The audience knows that the promised savior can only be Lincoln. That prophecy is preposterous, as Brown, the anti-slavery terrorist, had nothing but contempt for politicians like Lincoln. But by placing the slavery issue at the heart of the story, even this bit of twaddle serves a useful pedagogical purpose.

As a portrait of Lincoln the man and the politician, however, the film (like Robert Sherwood’s play on which it is based) is abysmal. The corniness of the first half of the film, like the first half of Griffith’s and all of Ford’s, owes a great deal to Sandburg’s The Prairie Years, which Sherwood reportedly read until he committed it to memory. One underlying theme is that Lincoln, although long opposed to slavery, was unwilling to speak out publicly on the issue out of fear for his own political future, and only very gradually matched his actions and his principles. As late as 1858, supposedly, Lincoln was a trimmer over slavery. In fact, Lincoln began making public remarks against the wrongs of slavery in the 1830s. Almost all anti-slavery advocates conceded that, under the Constitution, the federal government had no power to abolish slavery in states where it already existed. During his one term as a congressman in the late 1840s, Lincoln delivered stump speeches against the extension of slavery and proposed its abolition in the District of Columbia. As soon as Congress passed, and President Franklin Pierce signed, the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which contravened Congress’s power to restrict the spread of slavery into the Territories and new states, Lincoln truly emerged. And when he did, he made it perfectly clear (as he said in a famous speech in Peoria) that his opposition to slavery’s expansion arose from his hatred of “the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.”

Massey’s portrayal is wooden and at times lugubrious, in an attempt to convey Lincoln’s melancholy nature that also re-emphasizes his supposed passivity. Some of the finest Lincoln scholars, notably David Herbert Donald, have claimed that Lincoln’s essentially passive nature is crucial to any understanding of the man. It is true that Lincoln always battled an abiding sadness, but his passivity has been greatly exaggerated. In 1864, he wrote to a Kentucky editor that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”; but read in context the remark was a humble effort to persuade a dubious border-state newspaperman of the rightness of emancipation, not a profession of inaction. Some of Lincoln’s contemporaries ascribed his silences and his evasions to a combination of indecisiveness and inertness. Yet as the Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull observed, these impressions mistook political shrewdness for passivity: Lincoln, Trumbull wrote, “communicated no more of his own thoughts and purposes than he thought would subserve the ends he had in view.”

Related to the film’s theme of passivity is its laughable portrayal of Lincoln as a man who lacked the desire to become a politician and who remained averse to party politics even as he ascended to the White House. It was, the film asserts, only the memory of Ann Rutledge goading him to do God’s benevolent work, along with the prodding of his impossible and ambitious wife, Mary (played splendidly by Ruth Gordon), that pushed him forward. In fact, though, Lincoln needed no prodding. He was a highly competitive partisan politician, who not only practiced but also enjoyed the seductions and the manipulations of governing and electioneering.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois tries to refute the famous observation of Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon that his “ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” The idea that, upon his election in 1860, Lincoln the sharp political operator would tell friends, with disgust, as Massey’s Lincoln does, that he now “must fill all the dishonest pledges made in my name” is ludicrous. One scene, to be sure, late in the movie, presents Lincoln’s prowess as a skilled politician, who by verbal misdirection can avoid getting pinned down on difficult issuesbut the scene jars, as it creates a crafty politician out of a man who supposedly despised the partisanship and deal-making that are essential to success in American politics. Instead of Lincoln as he actually was, the film-makers concoct a supremely un-Lincolnian figure who, beneath his tough exterior, was a moralizing good-government reformer and anti-politics purist.

Finally, more than most depictions of Lincoln, Abe Lincoln in Illinois addresses a very specific set of historical circumstances, which explains the distortions in the plot. Written amid rising Nazi aggression in Europe, the play opened on Broadway on October 15, 1938, two weeks after the signing of the Munich Agreement, in which Britain, France, and Italy affirmed Germany’s annexation of part of Czechoslovakia. Sherwood was an avowed liberal internationalist who, in the aftermath of the Broadway success of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, would be named to the Roosevelt White House’s staff as a speechwriter. His drama, if not a direct allegory, contains unsubtly present-minded historical analogies to the growing crisis in Europe. In the second half of the film, the Slave Power is building its might, just as Nazi Germany was. Lincoln’s slowness to devote himself to the fight against slavery, although bad history, is a reminder of the slowness of the Western democracies, including the United States, to combat Hitler. A ten-minute speech by Lincoln in the second half, truncated in the movie but still a highlight, pleads for a renewal of American democratic values in the face of tyranny that, although it uses Lincoln’s words, rings for the 1930s more than for the 1850s. Viewers today are likely to miss these connections, but they were obvious to the actors and the audiences of the day. Massey, for whom Sherwood had written the title role, told an interviewer that “if you substitute the word dictatorship for the word slavery throughout Sherwood’s script, it becomes electric for our time.” And to the extent that Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a piece of liberal agitprop, its value as a historical drama is diminished.

III.

It is much more difficult to find contemporary political commentary in Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film’s respect for the pastness of the past is one of its great strengths: if there are lessons for the present and the future in Lincoln, the film-makers have not clumsily imposed them upon the drama. To be sure, it is not difficult to see, in the portrayal of Lincoln and even of Stevens, implied criticisms of the post-partisan folly and the “grand bargain” missteps of the current administration. If that is what the film-makers and actors intended, they are certainly not owning up to it. Yet even if they meant to impart a political message, Spielberg and Kushner do not try to distort the past, molding it into a manifesto of our times. The Abraham Lincoln whom they and Day-Lewis offer rings astonishingly true, even with the blemishes noted earlier, because Spielberg, despite a few clinker moments, was interested in filming history rather than symbol and myth. He and Day-Lewis have produced the finest portrayal of Lincoln ever presented on film.

A major reason behind Spielberg’s success was his and Kushner’s decision to limit almost all the action to the period of the final congressional debates over the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865. According to the earliest reports about the film several years ago, Spielberg began work expecting to complete a full-length presentation of Lincoln’s presidency based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller Team of Rivals. Wisely, given the sprawl of Goodwin’s book, he decided against it, and although the book may have informed the film-makers’ overall conception of Lincoln, its scant four pages on the passage of the amendment could supply only so much. Team of Rivals would not serve as the equivalent of The Prairie Years for Lincoln. Instead, Spielberg and Kushner present a tight drama about politics and slavery that might as well have had as its working title Old Mr. Lincoln. And they clearly have had to learn a great deal about the complicated politics that surrounded the slavery issue, as well as about how politics actually worked in Civil War Washington.

The focus could not have been better chosen for depicting the historical Lincoln. The story of Lincoln’s youth could offer ample material to the folklorist Sandburg, as well as to the myth-making and allegorical film-makers who drew upon him; but Lincoln’s contributions and importance to history lie almost entirely in the last decade or so of his life, beginning when he re-engaged fully with politics amid the storm over Kansas-Nebraska in 1854. And that importance lies chiefly in Lincoln’s singularly skillful work in his chosen profession, which was politics.

Historians and critics have imagined Lincoln in any number of capacities: orator, statesman, military strategist, political philosopher, mystic. They have had much more difficulty imagining him as a politician because, as the historian Richard N. Current once observed, “politics generally means ‘dirty politics,’ whether the adjective is used or not.” It comes as no surprise to find Lincoln, as a young man, defining politicians as “a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them, are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men.” But Lincoln’s kicker is confusing: “I say this with the greater freedom because, being a politician myself, none can regard it as personal.”

With politics as their starting place, Spielberg and Kushner, working with a brilliantly prepared Day-Lewis, create a highly credible older Lincoln. And without having to craft an archetype, the film can show Lincoln living with and living out the contradictions of an actual human being. He is, among other things, a long-married husband who must deal with his exasperating wife (played superbly by Sally Field)a shrewd but self-absorbed and sometimes unhinged woman who is capable of causing him grief in public as well as in the White House family quarters. There are scenes of bitter shouting between them, moments when it feels as if the marriage is about to snap, followed by scenes of great tenderness, of a husband chastely helping his wife out of her corset for the ten-thousandth time, of the two of them riding in a carriage, anticipating the great travels they will enjoy when his presidency is over. Then there is Lincoln the teller of scatological jokes as well as Lincoln the writer and orator who delivers the Second Inaugural, the man who adores and frets over his children as well as the man who commands the greatest fighting force assembled to that time.

Still, Lincoln is primarily a film about the American political process, and as such it makes yet another major contribution. The finest films in this genre tend to focus on a single fascinating semifictional characterHuey Long presented as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, James Curley presented as Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah. Lincoln shows that a mostly true-to-life film about a genuine person can be just as arresting as a fiction. But it also confronts another current that has sometimes implicated Lincoln in its unfortunate agenda and dates back at least as far as the films of Frank Capra. I refer to the contribution of the movies to American populist fantasy.

 

IN 1939, THE SAME YEAR as Young Mr. Lincoln, Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released. It is the story of Jefferson Smith, played by James Stewart, a hayseed who is sent to Washington by cynical party bosses to serve out a term harmlessly in the United States Senate. But Smith, pursuing a do-good appropriations bill, runs afoul of his corrupt former patrons, including the treacherous Senator Joseph Paine, played by Claude Rains, who try to destroy him. Smith fights long and hard and finally, when all hope seems lost, the pols back down. And early in the battle Smith gets the inspiration to carry on from a nighttime visit to his favorite D.C. monument. “That Lincoln Memorial! Gee whiz!” Smith exclaims to his trusted (but in fact duplicitous) assistant, Saunders, played by Jean Arthur. “Mr. Lincoln, there he is. He’s just looking right straight at you as you come up those steps. Just, just sitting there like he was waiting for somebody to come along.” To which Saunders replies, “Mr. Lincoln ... was waiting for somebody. He was waiting for you, Jeff.” Thus Lincoln becomes a symbol for the purity of the honest people in their uphill battle against the politicians, who are all dirty politicians.

Lincoln reverses Mr. Smith Goes to Washington just as surely as it does The Birth of a Nationfor the core of Spielberg’s film is the story of how dirty politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, wheel and deal their way to abolishing American slavery once and for all. If Lincoln aimed to do good like Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith, his methods were those of Claude Rains’s Senator Paine. This, of course, is not the prevalent way of thinking among today’s academic historians, any more than it is among Hollywood’s populists. Both share a reflexive assumption that party politicians are inherently corrupt, that even the best of them do nothing unless goaded by angry ordinary Americans, and that the true heroes of our political history have been the oppressed and the pure of heart, not the wily pols. Yet the history of the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage resoundingly refutes that assumptionor, more precisely, shows that, in a democracy, baseness and trickery may be essential to achieving also the highest ends, when undertaken by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens. As Jones’s Stevens intones in triumph after the measure is approved (the words may authentically be Stevens’s), “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

Stephen Spielberg set out to make a film about Abraham Lincoln. What he has produced ought to remove, once and for all, the lingering stain of the Lost Cause mythology, at least in respectable cinema. It ought to render ridiculous depictions of the Civil War as anything other than a struggle over American slavery and its future. It ought to bring some sense of honor back to the profession of politics, with all of its deception, deal-making, and machination. And it ought to serve as a second Lincoln Memorial, the one in which the hero is not chiseled out of stone.

Corrections: The essay originally mischaracterized DW Griffith's response to criticism of Birth of a Nation by saying he directed Intolerance to atone for the earlier film. Also, the essay originally described a quotation often attributed to Thaddeus Stevens about "the greatest measure of the nineteenth century" as perfectly authentic, when in fact it is unclear if he actually spoke the words. TNR regrets the error.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Lost Cause and the Won Cause: Abraham Lincoln in politics and the movies.”

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