Hope and Change: Spielberg on Lincoln

Note: No proper essay about a film can fail to contain a few “spoilers,” and this one is no different. You have been alerted.

On Thursday last, I watched Lincoln, the acclaimed new biopic from Steven Spielberg. Later on that afternoon, I wrote this review, which by now I’ve revised half-a-dozen times.

Lincoln is among the best movies I’ve seen since Mr. Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List, but deeper reflection on Lincoln reminds me of Hemingway’s quip about how Scott Fitzgerald was somewhere between handsome and pretty, especially his mouth, which “worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.”

The more I think about Lincoln – great as it is thanks to Spielberg and the film’s stars, especially Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role – the more I worry.

Now there is often a political agenda hiding in the skirts of what ever sashays out of Hollywood, and there’s one here. The screenwriter attached to Lincoln is Tony Kushner, leftist author of Angels in America, a Pulitzer-winning play that bears the subtitle: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

A couple of years back there was a flapdoodle over assertions by some that the Great Emancipator was a closeted homosexual, and I was worried before I saw Lincoln that some “queer theory” might seep in – to soil it and spoil it. That’s not the case.

There is, however, a more sinister message at the heart of the film, namely L’etat c’est moi. And I’m going to walk to the end of the limb here and start sawing: the Lincoln screenplay, if not the film itself, is a mash note to the president, and I don’t mean Abraham Lincoln. According to the film, hope is kindled and change realized only when visionaries do the right thing, regardless of cultural or legal barriers.   

Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Mr. Kushner’s script is taken in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, although the film depicts just the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency and life. Scenes, each no doubt with a basis in history, have been gerrymandered to emphasize a key point: the “people” aren’t to be trusted. Most Americans are brutes, in this case, dyed-in-the-wool racists, and a progressive leader must leapfrog democracy in order to achieve what only enlightened people recognize is just. Examples:

Secretary of State William Seward grills Midwestern visitors about the proposed Thirteenth Amendment (the driving force in the film: Lincoln’s determination to weld the Emancipation Proclamation to the Constitution). The good folks are in favor of it if it will help end the Civil War. And if the war ends before the Amendment passes in the House? Opposed. Why? The man says: “Niggers.”

Representative Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the radical abolitionists, speaks with vehemence about his contempt for democracy and “the people.” They elected him, but he owes them nothing.

The president tells the story of once representing a woman, a victim of what we now call domestic violence, who killed her husband, but whose murder case the young attorney knew he couldn’t win. So he let his client climb out a first-floor courtroom window and escape to freedom.

And when the president speaks about the suspension of habeas corpus and of the war-powers reasoning behind the Emancipation Proclamation, he admits he is unsure of the actual legality – doubts it in fact – but believes he was right to circumvent the law.
And that’s what just about everybody urges Mr. Lincoln to realize: you can’t wait for the knuckle-draggers to catch up; you can’t adhere to laws that impede progress.

Lincoln agrees. Thomas More he is not.

But are Messrs. Spielberg and Kushner sending a message to Barack Obama about ignoring pesky laws in order to promote progressive causes (same-sex marriage, perhaps)? Well, based on interviews he has given, I’d say Mr. Kushner is. (He “married” another man in Massachusetts in 2008.) And given Mr. Spielberg’s command of his medium, it’s hard to imagine any screenwriter slipping in such emphases without the director’s approval.

Of course the heroes in Lincoln are Republicans and the villains Democrats. And far from seeing Abraham Lincoln’s judgments as arising from the wellspring of incipient progressivism, one could more credibly conclude his commitment to abolition arose from a kind of conservatism. If he was a radical, it was in this sense: that he went back to the root our Judeo-Christian tradition – the radix, itself the root of “radical.”

And there may be a better historical analogy between Lincoln’s struggle and our own: between the Thirteenth Amendment and . . . the Human Life Amendment. It’s a natural-law connection as hard to imagine Tony Kushner making as it is to imagine Abraham Lincoln not making.

But now I’ll put aside my pet theories and say again: this is a very fine film. It has a peculiarly inept ending, but I’ve no doubt it will be a tsunami at the Oscars in February.

And good as Lincoln is  with one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled  it’s Mr. Day-Lewis who makes it extraordinary. I can’t recall a better screen performance. Ever. Day-Lewis has the Lincoln look, and he has the voice. We can’t really know, of course, how Lincoln sounded, but the actor’s commitment to a plausible Lincoln is consistent, compelling, and convincing. In quiet moments you hear him breathing. His stooped posture seems spot on. There’s a twinkle in his eye. And he seems every bit as odd – fey not gay – as the real Lincoln must have been. A.L. the Extraterrestrial.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.