Posted by Sappho on December 1st, 2012 filed in Movies
The day after Thanksgiving, Joel and I went to see Lincoln in a movie theater. It was the first movie I’d seen in a movie theater in over a year, because of the cancer (I was diagnosed in March, but had symptoms for months before that). But, being now officially in remission for two months, which should be enough time to build my white blood cell count back up enough to brave crowds, I felt ready.
Most of the reviews I’d seen were glowing; one friend of my stepmother’s dissented, finding the movie dull. As far as I’m concerned, the reviews were right, and my stepmother’s friend wrong. The movie held my attention throughout, and the acting was uniformly great. However, I think, if I try, I can also see where she was coming from. It was, after all, a talky movie (Steve Barnes said on his Facebook page that it was talky enough to be “C-span, the movie,” but he loved it anyway). The movie focuses mainly on a single month of Lincoln’s presidency, the month in which he was maneuvering to get the 13th amendment through Congress. The Lincoln on display in the movie is Lincoln the shrewd political operator, playing a part similar to the part Ben Franklin plays in 1776, as he tries every sly maneuver he can to get the amendment through the House (the Senate having already passed it), wheeling and dealing to draw in every Democrat vote he can (since the Republicans by themselves don’t make the two thirds majority necessary to approve a Constitutional amendment).
The occasional talkiness comes from the fact that the movie doesn’t stint on its political speeches. But it works. The writing, directing, and acting are such that Daniel Day-Lewis can hold your attention as Lincoln explaining a tricky legal point at length like Bill Clinton at his best. And there’s plenty of humor, partly by Lincoln, but partly stemming from the fact that, to the characters in the movie, this isn’t after all the revered Lincoln, but another politician, akin to how we now view Bill Clinton, who is either too radical or compromising too much, and, whichever of the two he is, is going to tell one of his stories yet again, darn it.
But the part of the movie that struck me most belonged to Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. After skillful use of patronage and other political lures, Lincoln has drawn just enough Democrat votes on board that he hopes to pass the amendment, if he can just persuade radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens not to scare them away. To do this, Stevens has been urged not to say anything that suggests that black people are actually equal to white people, but simply to favor an equality of legal rights. And so, when questioned, in a flat voice that shows far less conviction than he’s shown at any point before, he says (and says repeatedly) that he’s simply arguing for equal legal rights. He only regains his fire when, after repeated provocation, he denounces his Democrat counterpart in a flurry of insults, closing with the remark that even this person is equal before the law. Afterwards, when challenged by one of his fellow radical Republicans (will he say anything now), he says that yes, he will indeed say just about anything to get the amendment for which he’s worked for so long.
Here’s the thing about that speech. Lincoln, the movie, has provoked a lot of comment about Lincoln, the man. This involves various evaluations of his career. Some of them, even when critical, I find interesting and thoughtful. For instance:
Adam Gopnik on Lincoln as an uncompromising man, politically shrewd but not particularly yielding, in his pursuit of preservation of the Union and of the end of slavery.
Scott Lemieux on Lincoln as essentially a moderate, who achieved radical results only due to extraordinary times.
But I also saw, on my Facebook feed, a criticism of another sort, the kind that drags out some single remark by Lincoln, about black people, that sounds, to 21st century ears, let’s say less than enlightened, and attaches to that quote “the real Lincoln.” I’ve seen this kind of thing before. Whether Lincoln actually said the quote in question, I don’t know. I know that Lincoln didn’t actually say nearly all that he’s quoted on the Internet as saying (see this Albert Einstein quote). But on the other hand, he might well have. I do know that, a) the notion that the Lincoln who freed the slaves is somehow less “real” than the Lincoln who may also have said some racist thing or things strikes me as pretty silly, and b) whether or not Thaddeus Stevens actually said anything like the words that the movie gives him, the words the movie gives him at this point do give a certain context to that Facebook quote that was supposed to show the “real Lincoln,” since they do ring true to one historical reality of the time.
And that is this: In my childhood, George Wallace, famously, made a choice to “never be outniggered again,” for political gain. And that’s reprehensible. But a century before Wallace, at a time when just ending a system in which husbands could be sold away from their wives and children from their mothers and fathers took a war with a dreadful death toll, how do I look at remarks by abolitionists that fall short of support for full racial equality? (And there are such remarks by various abolitionists.) Are they signs that abolitionists saw enslaved black people as “fit for freedom, but not for friendship”? Or are they signs of people making whatever desperate compromise they thought they needed to, to fight for any kind of equality at all? Probably sometimes one, sometimes the other.
And whatever else the “real Lincoln” may have done or been, he did indeed really end slavery.