A First Rate, Second Rate Film

In 1862, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips described Abraham Lincoln as a "first rate, second rate man." Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln might likewise be described as a first rate, second rate film. Much of the film’s criticism on the left has decried it for portraying a history of emancipation that is revisionist at best, reactionary at worst. While these criticisms are not without basis, neither are they apt. Spielberg’s film should be judged first as a cultural object, a biopic with political underpinnings, and judged only secondarily by the merit of those underpinnings. The questions "good film?" and "good politics?" must be separable, even if they are not separate.

From an artistic point of view, director Steven Spielberg presents in Lincoln a strongly realist aesthetic. Much of the film takes place across the seedy bureaus and stifled political arenas of Washington DC. Rarely does the action break out into the open air, and when it does, the audience is confronted with the pervasive of the battlefields and marshaling grounds of the American Civil War. The claustrophobic staging effect which mimics the anxious political urgency of the time. 

The narrative of the film likewise portrays the passage of the 13th Amendment and the end of the war as features of a political realism,  lacking the grand appeal to principle or idealism that one expects from a film about the end of slavery. The film assumes an anti-slavery audience and so avoids the heavy-handed chest-pounding of many other Hollywood portrayals of gains in the realm of political freedom. Lincoln, a lawyer in his private life, is primarily concerned with the legal exigencies necessary to eradicate slavery, using the war itself as a material platform to accomplish this end. The war itself is consistently posited as a thinly veiled engine driving the narrative; as abolition is to be procured as a war measure against the South, it must come before the collapse of the South and the end of the conflict. 

Screenwriter Tony Kushner’s adaptation of historical characters is also adorned with a strong sense of realism. Eschewing overt sentimentality and a ‘great man’ rendition of Lincoln’s presidency, Kushner’s characters present a gravity and vulnerability that allow the audience to feel as if they are immersed in the historical moment. Winning the audience away from popular characterisations and prevalent textbook renditions of the characters at play is a marked achievement for the film.

 The overall effect of the aesthetic gives the film a profound sense of authenticity, an effect grounded in the exceptional presentations given by the lead actors. Disrupting the contemporary myth of Lincoln’s booming voice, Daniel Day-Lewis offers a softer (and by all accounts, more historically accurate) interpretation, delivering  Lincoln’s pragmatic pronouncements with a strained and pitchy Kentucky lilt. He and Sally Field compellingly dramatize the tense and fractured Lincoln household, always rife with arguments and melancholy. Tommy Lee Jones rescues the much-maligned Thaddeus Stevens from his characterization as a spiteful and callous villain, an image bequeathed to the American public by Stevens’ only two previous silver screen appearances -- in D.W.  Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (which was promptly appropriated as a Klu Klux Klan recruitment tool) and in Tennessee Johnson, a 1942 film directed by Lionel Barrymore (a protege of Griffith’s). Instead, Jones portrays Stevens as a complicated idealist, torn between the strictures of political efficacy and the fervor of his convictions. 

Considered as an aesthetic and cultural object, the film achieves its goal: an engaging, well-directed, and technically masterful retelling of the political landscape which dominated the last years of Lincoln’s presidency and his life. 

As a film that dramatizes a political situation, we are also obliged to evaluate the historical accuracy and political sensibility of the film. In the past few weeks, leftist critics have generally levied two critiques. Perhaps the more prevalent critique of the film’s politics is that in focusing on the multiple conflicting forces at hand, the film emphasizes Lincoln’s conciliatory politics, obscuring Lincoln’s "true" status as a radical figure. Moreover, telling the history of the so-called emancipation of American slaves from a purely legislative perspective bedecks great white men with the mantle of having abolished slavery and does so at the expense of the role played by abolitionists and of slaves themselves in achieving their own emancipation. At one and the same time, then, the left has maligned Spielberg’s Lincoln as both too radical and not radical enough.

In the first place, these critiques seem to overlook much of the nuance in the film. Much of the narrative depicts Lincoln as at once admonishing the Radical Republicans, conducting trompe l’oeil maneuvers toward the conservatives in his party, orchestrating bribes to undermine the Democratic base in the Congress, and juggling a Confederate peace delegation bound for Washington DC, all with the express aim of driving the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. Critics who view these as expositions on Lincoln’s conciliatory nature, or otherwise as a sequence of compromises to contending political factions miss both the point of the film and a critical component of Abraham Lincoln’s character and role in history. On the contrary, the multiple fronts on which Lincoln pursues the legal reform lends much more the figure of a pragmatic politician, concerned with the overlapping and viciously circular intricacies of legal jargon than in an idealistic or heroic crusader for justice and equality. 

Abraham Lincoln as a bourgeois political figure was not the archetype of American Jacobinism that both his contemporary critics and his modern radical supporters would like him to be (hence Phillips' descriptor as a second rate man).  Neither the radical cloud compeller, nor the "great compromiser" that popular renditions of history are so keen to depict him as, Abraham Lincoln is a historical figure shaped almost entirely by the culmination of the bourgeois revolution in the United States. What Lincoln brings to life is the narrative of Lincoln’s ascent, through personal travail and political tribulation, to the apex of bourgeois political aspirations: the formal and legal equality of men. 

But the film does not pretend to be more than this. To expect in 2.5 hours a comprehensive staging of the multifarious, complex, and winding conjunction of forces at play in two of the most complicated and long-lasting political battles of American history would be unreasonable. Lincoln dramatizes only a small sliver of this complicated terrain. Had the film attempted to portray this one, limited aspect of history as a totalizing narrative, the film would be merely the piece of racist liberal propaganda some critics describe it as. But to Spielberg and Kushner’s credit, the film makes repeated overtures toward the fraught and complicated interweaving historical circumstances and actors whose struggles were connected to  and implicated in these battles. 

The film opens with black Union soldier, portrayed valiantly and sympathetically, pressing the insufficiency of Lincoln’s political program, reminding him of the nearly 200,000 black men who took up arms in the war. Lincoln’s monologue about the Emancipation Proclamation laments that it functions only if  black southerners continue to be seen as property, reinscribing the very system it intends to dismantle. The entrance of black men and women to the viewing balcony of the House stages explicitly one element the bifurcation which lives on long after the passage of the 13th Amendment: the exclusion of racial minorities from political power inside governmental bodies. The protracted fight on the floor of the House of Representatives highlights the limited nature of the nominal political equality entailed by the 13th Amendment, especially without the vote and without, as Thaddeus Stevens reminds the audience, the redistribution of wealth and resources. Even the heartwarming revelation of Stevens’ intimate relationship with his black housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith comes with the pained recognition she could never appear publicly as his partner. 

Lincoln does not pretend that the either 13th Amendment or Abraham Lincoln’s political convictions acts as a panacea for the enduring legacy of slavery and racism; it therefore escapes charges of reactionary revisionism. Though it does not chronicle the previous and contemporaneous struggles by other historical actors, the film opens the space for these accounts to relate to one another as complementary and overlapping histories. Leftist critics are doubtless right that the struggles of black abolitionists accomplished leaps and bounds more for the real, material conditions of African-Americans in this country than has any piece of tepid legislation. But Lincoln was not a film about this vital, complicated, and vibrant history; if it had been, it could have been a first-rate film. It was instead, a compelling and well-executed narrative of a secondary and limited struggle for the expansion of formal freedom.

Ashley Bohrer is a feminist activist and PhD candidate at DePaul University.

J. Matthew Camp is a writer, socialist and union organizer in Chicago.