Movie Misnamed

Posted on November 23, 2012. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Hollywood epitomizes the triumph of style over substance, so it’s not surprising that a film like “Lincoln” would, in so many ways, be striking in its cinematic presentation.

It’s downright uncanny how much some of the actors wound up remarkably resembling their historical counterparts, starting with star Daniel Day-Lewis’ stellar personification of the 16th president.

One film critic wrote that Jackie Earle Haley, who played the Confederate vice president, “looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.”

Few details in setting and costuming went unattended. Director Steven Spielberg spared little on research, even unearthing from the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort one of Lincoln’s pocket watches so he could record the sound of it ticking for the movie’s soundtrack.

Alas, if only so much energy had been expended on creating an historical portrait as compellingly authentic.

For a population consumed with text-messaging, Facebook and You-Tube, depth is often elusive, and it’s easy to reduce complex issues and subjects to one-dimensional oversimplification.

At last, I hoped, a filmmaker with both resources and talent would reveal Abraham Lincoln, complete with his critical flaws, to 21st Century movie-going audiences.

Ardent students of history are already aware of Lincoln’s controversial actions, including some blatantly unconstitutional tactics that would render a modern-day president disgraced and driven from office.

But from the very first scene in the movie, it is clear that the film was misnamed. It should have been titled “Amendment”—because the main theme of the movie is the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, with Lincoln co-starring.

I had wanted to see a movie about Lincoln. Not just Lincoln in the last four months of his life, but Lincoln as shaped by the previous 56 years, too.

The passage of the 13th Amendment by the House of Representatives is a worthy tale, and while the film does a good job capturing the legislative maneuvers required to get it passed, it falls prey to the flaw of reshaping history to fit today’s context. Why a movie so intent upon thematic authenticity would begin with a scene that likely never occurred is puzzling. The film opens with a couple of black Union soldiers talking with President Lincoln after a battle, one of whom impertinently complains that white soldiers are paid more.

Such impudence likely would have been punished immediately in 1865 military circles, but in Hollywood, the farsighted foot soldier is allowed to muse that not only someday will black soldiers be paid equally, but perhaps in 100 years they will vote, too. The theater crowd seemed nervously unsure whether the private’s next breath would prophesy a black commander-in-chief. All breathed easier when the script veered back to more realistic dialogue.

That opening sequence set a racial tone that would pervade the entire movie. Race obviously figured into the Civil War, along with a number of other factors, but any implication that Lincoln was consumed with the issue of racial equality is utterly inaccurate. Lincoln was from a segregationist state where statutory prohibition of permanent residence by blacks was allowed by its 1848 constitution. And while he clearly opposed slavery, he also clearly rejected social equality for blacks, repeatedly proposing repatriation after emancipation.

When Horace Greeley chastised him in an editorial for not embracing the abolitionist cause with sufficient vigor, Lincoln famously replied in a published letter that “If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.” He also voiced the inverse, and then took a pragmatic approach about his paramount objective: If he could save the union without freeing any slaves, that is what he would do, or if he could save the union by freeing all the slaves, he would do that.

To its credit, the movie does clarify that the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure, which applied only to Southern states in rebellion (and gave them a grace period to return to the Union under which they could keep their slaves) and actually freed no slaves.

The most disappointing thing about Lincoln is that little is learned by watching it. There is so much more depth to so many more aspects of the man that would have made for enlightening cinema. For example, his vast assumption of “war powers” in 1861—even though the administration refused to consider the Confederacy a wartime belligerent—was big news at the time and is an instructive study 150 years later.

Fearing a potentially problematic Maryland secession given the slave state’s border relationship with the District of Columbia, Lincoln, in direct violation of the Constitution’s habeas corpus guarantee, ordered military imprisonment of anyone with suspected secessionist sympathies. In the end, 17 newspaper owners, 29 elected members of the state legislature and countless merchants, bankers and businessmen were among the nearly 2,100 Marylanders jailed without due process. Critics of the Patriot Act would have a hard time finding a worse civil liberties offender than Lincoln, who was ultimately responsible for more than 10,000 unlawful imprisonments.

It’s often said that the book is better than the movie. If you really want to get acquainted with Lincoln, read some history.

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