Barack Obama is said to have drawn much inspiration from Abraham Lincoln and his “Team of Rivals”, to be a close reader of the Doris Kearns Goodwin work by that title, itself a chief source for the Spielberg flick. And a great film it is too, largely thanks to the utterly compelling portrayal of the man by Daniel Day-Lewis.
The film tells the story of the 13th Amendment’s passage, forever outlawing slavery in the United States - a great moral achievement however you slice it. The stirring emotion one feels when the legislation finally passes, and the prayers of the black men and women onlookers are answered, and as Lincoln himself looks like a crushing weight has been lifted - all mask the central political message of the film: a calculus of executive power according to which the end justifies the means.
Although this message is implied rather than stated, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do not ignore Lincoln’s imperial tendencies. Far from it: they acknowledge and justify them so systematically and explicitly that there is no doubt of a didactic intent. There are those who complain of executive overreach, violations of liberty, and burgeoning dictatorship, but they are sneering racists. There is a campaign to bribe and blackmail representatives, but it is a jolly romp. Lying about a Confederate peace delegation (helpfully headed by Freddy Krueger from the remake and the evil president from ’24’) is a necessary evil. We see Lincoln kindly pardoning a sixteen year old deserter; we do not see the men he condemned to hang without trial. And with its relentless focus on the thirteenth amendment in 1865, the film avoids all the truly awkward questions about the Civil War. Could it have been avoided? Was it really all about slavery in the first place? One wonders what would have become of Lincoln had he avoided the theatre that night. Then, he was for the ages, but what if we had been stuck with him?
“I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!” For a moment the folksy, approachable man is rendered with the abject distance of a sovereign. Lincoln’s assumption of this terrible metaphysical difference from the men around him is the turning point of the film. From that point on, the beginning of his second term, the squabbling cabinet falls into line and the political campaign against congressional opponents marches on to victory.
If the Civil War had been a struggle of good and evil, there would have been nothing tragic about it. As it was, most of the men fighting for the Confederacy did not own slaves, and would not have recognized their struggle chiefly as a struggle for slavery; nor would the Yankees, at the outset, have recognized their struggle chiefly as a struggle against slavery. Most Confederates, like other tenacious rebels who persisted against overwhelming odds from Concord to Gaza, were fighting for their homeland and their freedom. The best and the worst of America died with the South. We dispensed with slavery, and with our most authentic traditions of liberty. We freed the slaves, only for them to join us in a more subtle bondage that slowly continues to disclose itself. But the Confederates in this film are a cipher; Robert E. Lee shows up, only to trot manfully away without saying a word. This is how we like our history, a simple morality tale, avoiding unnecessary complications, with a salutary and timely political lesson to boot.
This is not about condemning Lincoln. It is a warning of the dangers to us today of whitewashing his enterprise. Today we have an executive that sees itself entitled to spy on its people, to exploit crisis and emergency to implement policies that would never pass the ordinary democratic process, to deceive and conceal, to imprison and even execute citizens without trial. The seeds of such presumption are not to be located in the founding fathers - it would have horrified them - but in Lincoln’s bloody assertion of the raw primacy of federal power over the principles of self-determination and popular sovereignty. Living as equals with our black brothers and sisters we enjoy and celebrate Lincoln’s achievements, but we remain blind to the growing costs of his legacy. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln is a reassuring figure, showing us how unchecked power can be safely entrusted to a good and just man, how the law can be broken for the right reasons, how an intellectual and moral elite can shove a noble aim down the throats of the slow-witted, rough-souled masses. Only Day-Lewis' acting gives us a hint of the real darkness that the direction and script efface or legitimate. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Lincoln’s career, he is an unsettling model for a presidency today. Needed instead is a realistic appraisal of the price we paid, even if we conclude it was worth paying.
Apparently, however, Obama is a big fan. Sic Semper Tyrannis, indeed... but you won’t hear the phrase in Spielberg’s Lincoln.