“Lincoln:” A first rate second rate film

affiche-lincoln-spielberg

My wife and I went to see Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” last night. Both of us came away disappointed and surprised to discover that the film had received multiple Golden Globe nominations.

As a successful exercise in hagiography, Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of a saintly Abraham Lincoln was well done. In those whitewashed terms, Lewis convincingly embodied a simple, straight-forward, wise man obsessed not with image or popularity, but with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Lewis’ Lincoln was witty, self-deprecatory, an eloquent homespun speaker, and a charming raconteur.  Above all he was a single-minded abolitionist. In fact, apart from their vastly differing charm quotients, there was little to separate President Lincoln from his ally, the caustic and belligerent Thaddeus Stevens (overplayed by Tommy Lee Jones) – the abolitionist chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But as many have observed, Abraham Lincoln was also a racist who openly thought of whites as intrinsically superior to African Americans. Howard Zinn points out that candidate Lincoln was anti-slavery when speaking in the North. He was white supremacist campaigning in the South. In the end he advocated sending former slaves back to Africa. As he said repeatedly, his main purpose as president was not to free the slaves or to pass the 13th Amendment, but to preserve the union even if that meant keeping blacks enslaved forever. Moreover, it’s impossible to distance Lincoln from the wholesale slaughter of the Civil War and its scorched earth campaigns. Even according to Spielberg’s portrait of St. Abraham, Lincoln was willing to sacrifice untold numbers of other people’s sons to his “noble cause;” but he was stubborn in refusing to offer up his own. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it well when he described Lincoln as “a first rate second-rate man.”

Similarly, because of the Day-Lewis performance and its unflinching depiction of the absolute slaughter of the War between the States, Spielberg’s film might well be described as a first-rate second-rate movie. It is second-rate because it leaves us with an eighth grade understanding of its subject. It fails to deepen our grasp not only of the complexities of the man Lincoln, but also those of his historical context and the important working class struggle that was represented by the United States’ Civil War. As a result, we’re left with “feel-good” images of elderly white Republicans embracing and singing “Union Forever” because the cause of freedom and equality for all has been advanced by Constitutional amendment.

In reality, the purpose of the newly formed Republican Party was not to free blacks [who remain(ed) largely despised by whites] but to advance the cause of 19th century industrialists, railroaders, and mining interests.  Those exclusively white cabals were part of the struggle between old money and new that had reached its apex in Europe during the revolutionary year of 1848. Across the European world, the old money interests were the land owning agriculturalists that had ruled since the onset of the middle ages. The “new money” people were the products of the Industrial Revolution. In their eyes, it was their turn to call the shots, and they were willing to go to the mat with their rivals, whatever the consequences or cost in working class corpses.

In terms of such ferment, the Civil War represented the mid- 19th century struggle in Europe “crossing the pond.” The Civil War was really about land and gold. Specifically, it was about what to do with the vast acreage recently stolen from Mexico in the war of 1846. It was about who would own and transport all that gold discovered in Old Mexico in 1849. Would that territory be used for plantations worked by slaves? Or would it be used for industry, mining, and railroads? Northern industrialists were determined to use the territory for their own profit. So they sought abolition of slavery in the New West. Republicans like Lincoln also passed legislation subsidizing railroaders as they colonized the land for purposes of moving eastward the spoils of the Mexican War. That form of abolition and subsidy was what precipitated the South’s secession from the Union.

So the Civil War really wasn’t primarily about slavery, but about land and hegemony. Nonetheless, slavery was deeply part of the struggle.  Eliminating that “peculiar institution” played a major role in weakening the competitive advantage the old money had. Abolition would also create a mobile labor force providing a surplus of workers to fill job openings and suppress wages in northern factories. The exigencies of emerging industrial capitalism had made it clear that slaves were more expensive to maintain than wage labor. Hence northern joy at the passage of Amendment 13.

Similarly slave rebellions were co-opted by the new captains of industry. Thus insurgent slaves represented a working class contribution to the mid-nineteenth century changing of the hegemonic guard in the United States. Slave interests melded with those of the industrialists opposing the old aristocracy based on plantations and forced labor. In a sense, in fighting for the North, slaves were going from the fire into the frying pan – from a more egregious form of servitude into a softer form of bondage.

None of this historical context is even hinted at in the Spielberg film. As a result, viewers are left no more enlightened about history or the causes of current struggles than they were before their 150 minute investment. Instead Spielberg perpetuates the myth that significant change comes from the top. He shows us the familiar and misleading portrait of U.S. leaders primarily responding to ideals of freedom and equality and the needs of “the people” rather than to those of the moneyed classes who use “the people” as cannon fodder to advance their venal concerns.

Certainly there were idealistic abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens. But Abraham Lincoln was not one of them. He was more complex, ruthless and beholden to his patrons than Spielberg allows. Had the director portrayed that Lincoln, had he not erased class differences and conflicts from his portrait, his film would have been first-rate indeed.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

9 thoughts on ““Lincoln:” A first rate second rate film”

  1. Spielberg with this 8th? —9th? Hollywood Lincoln
    –AGAIN— ‘overlooks’ the ONLY urgently relevant,
    yet to be treated, aspect of the entire Lincoln legacy
    –his quite possibly —FATAL— diss of the Global
    USURY bank monopoly over the finance of the war.

    Spielberg remains the supreme purveyor of on cue
    predictive programming and PC moral alibis for
    capstone ‘things unfolding’.

    BEWARE!

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  2. Mike, I think u were somewhat harsh in describing ole Abe as a “racist”. In those circumstances and times almost anyone could be considered a racist. I surely haven’t read much of his history so I don’t think I am a worthy critic; I need to read much more about the Civil War. My ignorance was such that I went, one morning a week, during 7th and 8th grades, to Thaddeus Steven Elementary School and, until I saw this movie, had no clue who T. Stevens was and so read a little about him on Google; strong man that Thaddeus, not afraid to speak his piece and his peace.
    Mike we have run out of time in Pgh. and won’t be able to come down to Berea this time but I hope we can someday, both Paqui and I. We especially would love to attend one of ur ecumenical services

    Thanks for all ur prolific writing; I am lucky if I can scan an article or 2 per week and I am weeks behind.
    Love to Peggy and ur whole family. Feliz Navidad.

    L y P

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    1. Larry: Thanks for your note. I’m sorry Peggy and I won’t be seeing you and Paqui this year. It might have been more accurate for me to refer to Lincoln as a “white supremacist” rather than as a racist. I’m thinking of his words (as found in Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States:”) “And inasmuch as . . . there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Also, it seems to me that in the mid-19th century there were many non-racists — Thaddeus Stevens being one along with people like John Brown, and the abolitionists who founded Berea College. But then, as you say, I might be a bit harsh in my judgment of Lincoln. My children agree with you. Feliz Navidad, Larry and Paqui! — Mike

      ________________________________________

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  3. You are wrong on the reason for the Civil War. It was about slavery. As far back as Jackson’s successful effort to hold the union together (read Tennesse’s Jon Meecham’s bio of Jackson), the south was using the red herring of state’s rights to mask their unwillingness to recognize the equality of blacks and foreswear the free labor that made the plantation culture viable.. The only significant states’ rights issue was the right to own slaves. I am surprised that you take such a narrow, southern view of the “War of Northern Aggression.” You need to read more historians of the Civil War, including Tennessee’s Shelby Foote’s outstanding three-volume history.

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    1. Thanks for the correction, Bill. Sorry I didn’t respond sooner. (I’ve been traveling since the 22nd of December, and have rarely gotten to my e-mail). Actually, I wasn’t trying to defend a Southern perspective, but to place the Civil War in the perspective of western history. In that view, it becomes a bourgeois revolution against the old land-owning aristocracy — similar to the mid-19th century revolutions that took place all over Europe around 1848. I was trying to say the war was really about the use of land stolen from the Mexicans in the war of 1846. Would that land be controlled by the planter class or by the miners, railroaders, and industrialists/ The discovery of gold in California in 1849 was also a central factor. is that a “states’ rights” argument?

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      1. I think the “opening of the West” is related more to class struggle, population pressures and the need for new markets than States’ rights. It was primarily the landed aristoricracy of the old, southern plantation states that wanted secession. It was largely the poor seeking chances for a new life who trekked west. As regards the Civil War, the “newer” southern states–Kentucky, Tennessee, etc., didn’t have the kind of land or climate to take effecient advantage of slave labor, which is why there was so much dissent about secession in the western areas of the Confederacy. Hardscrabble farmers, trappers and hunters had little to gain from secession.
        After reading your reply, I checked the list of those who died at the Alamo. I didn’t do an exact count, but a quick scan of the list showed a large majority were southerners. I’d also bet a large majority were lower class, not members of the landed gentry.

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  4. This seems like a pretty tough review of one of the best movies of
    the year and an unfair critique an individual universally recognized
    as one of the great presidents in American history. Who says it’s one
    of the best movies of the year? The people who review movies. Who says
    Abraham Lincoln is one of the best Presidents of all time? Anyone who
    knows anything about American history.

    You’re quite right that Lincoln’s priority was preserving the Union
    and I think Spielberg was pretty explicit about communicating that in
    his film. What was also clear, to me at least, was that Lincoln was a
    really gifted and savvy politician who didn’t have to push for an end
    to slavery but chose to when he saw an opportunity. Now, you’ve argued
    that the main explanations for this were political and economic. That
    northern industrialists to whom he was beholden figured out that
    sweatshop labor was cheaper than owning slaves. That the future of the
    economy was in low-wage labor and industrial production, railroads and
    mining. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not. What I do know is that
    Lincoln made the push to end slavery after being re-elected, which
    suggests there was little to be had in terms of political gain. Did
    ending slavery make economic sense too? It probably did. I don’t know
    why any of that matters though. It didn’t change the result. The war
    ended and so too did slavery. Now, if you were to read Doris
    Kearns-Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, from which the movie Lincoln
    was adapted, you’d learn that, for Lincoln, ending slavery was as much
    about principle as politics and as much about morality as the economy.
    Of course preserving the Union was his priority. And, of course,
    ending slavery was a secondary consideration driven by moral, economic
    and yes, political, imperatives. What’s news about that though? And
    what movie did you watch in which that wasn’t clear?

    Your argument then, seems to be, Okay, President Lincoln preserved the
    Union and ended slavery in America for all time. But, because there
    were not entirely noble political and economic considerations and
    factors at work (in addition to moral and human ones which you don’t
    address) that makes Lincoln a second rate president? I just don’t
    follow that.

    Second rate means mediocre or inferior in quality or value. It is not
    a term to be used lightly and certainly not one you would expect to be
    associated with a great –and very human– President like Abraham
    Lincoln or an award winning film maker like Steven Spielberg.

    Having said all of that, it was fun to read your review of this film. I do hope you will keep submitting topical movie reviews –in addition to your other entries– for all of your readers and followers to enjoy and discuss.

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    1. BRS: my comments weren’t intended to be so much a criticism of Lincoln the president but of the film’s one-dimensionality. It would have been much more interestint, I though, had Spielberg presented Lincoln as more complicated — the way all of us inevitably are. Even saints have feet of clay.

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