Day-Lewis aside, Lincoln film was a wilful waste of great cinema
Published 10/02/2013 | 04:00
Lincoln is too small a film for so large a life. Without Daniel Day-Lewis, it would be merely a tedious talkathon, The West Wing with wigs.
Most of the American critical cheerleaders were really reviewing Barack Obama's favourite book, on which the movie claims to be based: Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals – although only three pages deal with the 13th Amendment.
But Irish critics have no excuse for not pointing out that Lincoln is flawed, both as history and as cinema.
These two flaws stem from the same source – the absence of black men and women as active agents in the struggle against slavery.
Let's start with the history. Tony Kushner, the writer, set the historical accuracy bar high in publicity promotions. "We were enormously accurate. Steven and I both cared a lot – we worked with Doris, we worked with a couple of other Lincoln historians, what we're describing absolutely happened."
Professor Eric Foner, the most distinguished historian of slavery, disagrees on two counts. First, the fundamental premise of the film – that passing the 13th Amendment was a race against time – is simply not true. If the 13th Amendment had not passed Lincoln had pledged to call Congress into special session in March. "And there, the Republicans had a two-thirds majority."
But Foner's major criticism – and mine – is that Lincoln wrongly portrays blacks as largely passive spectators. "Even as the House debated, Sherman's army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood."
But it's clearly not a story that Spielberg or Kushner wanted to tell. And their reluctance to deal frontally with race prompts a basic question about Lincoln: How come a major movie, whose director and writer claim to be an historically accurate account of a crucial moment in the campaign for abolition, somehow ends up pushing black Americans to the edge of the frame?
So, to adapt a famous advertising slogan, it would have been better for Irish cheerleaders before making up their minds to have opened their eyes. They might then have noticed that the black actors in Lincoln are either looking up gratefully at him or looking down gratefully at him from the gallery. As one dissenting American critic observed, there is no black part big enough to win even an award for Best Supporting Actor.
The only two African-American women with small domestic speaking parts are Lydia Hamilton-Smith (Thaddeus Stevens' partner) and Elizabeth Keckley (Mrs Lincoln's maid). But they too are short-changed. The historical Keckley was a radical activist who ran Contraband Relief Association while Hamilton-Smith was a successful businesswoman.
But the biggest hole in Lincoln is the absence of Frederick Douglass, friend of both Daniel O'Connell and Lincoln, a black leader of prodigious talents, whose photographs show a startling resemblance to Morgan Freeman – and thus a casting opportunity missed.
What makes the Lincoln-Douglass relationship dramatic gold is that Douglass started out as a somewhat priggish critic of Lincoln, ended by revering him, but never shut his sharp eyes to the fact that while Lincoln was sound on slavery he suffered from the same prejudices as his peers when it came to racial equality.
After Lincoln's death, Douglass dryly noted: "Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man."
All of which should have provided rich dramatic pickings for a director and writer who wanted to give us the real Lincoln, warts and all. Especially since Lincoln had excised almost all his remaining racist prejudices by the end of his life.
As a bonus, a Lincoln- Douglass dialectic would have given Lincoln's role some badly needed character development. Because Kushner's sentimental portrayal forces Day-Lewis to give something close to a visual soliloquy since it gives Lincoln no moral conflict, change or growth.
Lincoln is as loveable when we leave him as when we meet him. No change. There is no battle between his dark angels and his better angels, no moral movement. In sum there is no war within him to mirror the war without.
Significantly, it is said that Spielberg originally wanted to make a movie about Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. That would have made a lot more sense in terms of story and structure than the tedious machinations to pass the 13th Amendment.
Lincoln and Douglass had three meetings in the White House. With a little dramatic licence Spielberg could have used these to create the three-act structure that is essential in epic films. Given the clumsy prologue and equally clunky epilogue, Spielberg needed all the structure he could get.
So why did Spielberg drop the dramatically powerful idea
of building a movie around Lincoln and Douglass? Think of the tantalising prospect of Daniel Day-Lewis and Morgan Freeman (or Denzel Washington) warily testing each other. Why give up that rich drama to focus on the fiddly details of fixers in smoke-filled rooms and the flawed premise of the 13th Amendment?
On the principle of Occam's Razor I am going to select the simplest answer to these two questions. First, I believe that Kushner, a stage writer not a screenwriter, simply could not cope with the complex demands of epic narrative.
Few screenwriters can. That's why we still revere Robert Bolt. His screenplays for Dr Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia are perfect examples of what David Puttnam calls "cinematic width".
Lacking Bolt's talent, Kushner made a virtue of necessity. He settled for the safe option of doing what a Broadway theatrical playwright does best – gather a bunch of big-name actors to sit around a room talking their asses off.
Second, I believe that the Douglass idea was dropped because it would raise race issues which are still contentious in America. As Professor Michael Shank wrote in the Washington Post, Spielberg and Kushner wanted to keep the film as "a favourable treatise on Lincoln's civil rights leadership and forego the Lincoln that Douglass described as 'pre-eminently the white man's President'".
This reluctance to deal with race is linked to the final failure in Spielberg's film – the failure to indict Jefferson Davis and the South for complicity in slavery. Here a director with Spielberg's deep knowledge of movie history had a special duty to discharge.
Any major modern film on Lincoln should challenge the malign Dixie movie myth of Northern exploitation and Southern suffering that began with DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation and reached its apotheosis with another southern apologia, Gone With the Wind.
To make a modern classic Spielberg needed a writer with fire in his belly who believed slavery was an abomination, that the South reaped what it had sowed, and got the retribution it richly deserved when General Philip Sheridan burned his way down the Shenandoah Valley, torching the cool mansions of the Confederacy, visiting the South with "a terrible swift sword", digging up its imaginary Garden of Eden and breaking its will to win.
But even if he had the skill to do so, Kushner is too politically correct to render that kind of Old Testament retribution on the wide screen. In a recent interview he revealed that he still subscribes to the South's storyline about cruel carpet-baggers stripping sweet Scarlet O'Haras of their heirlooms.
"The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation
of alienation and bitterness that led to... the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies."
A new generation of revisionist historians has rolled back this fashionable retrospect on Reconstruction. From the moment General Phil Sheridan cut off Robert E Lee's retreat, thus forcing him to surrender to Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, the South set out to subvert the spirit and letter of Lincoln's 13th Amendment using the Klan, Jim Crow and lynch law.
Spielberg and Kushner claim they made the movie they wanted to make. It's more likely they made the only movie they felt was acceptable given the continuing sensitivity about race and related issues in contemporary America.
Any modern movie on Lincoln worth its salt would in passing blow away the mint julep and magnolia myth that the South was a victim. Instead it would show that for 100 years after the death of Lincoln, the white South swaggered with a lynch rope in one hand and a police baton in the other, until Lyndon B Johnson finally laid it low.
Spielberg could have made a modern classic by setting the Lincoln-Douglass dialogue against the sweeping canvas of the Civil War. Instead he settled for a small talkie, got great actors to deliver the lush lines, pointed his luminous cameras at the lot and came up with a film for the White House rather than every house.
That's a wilful waste of what cinema does best. The glory of the medium is that it can – to borrow three words from rugby referees – touch, set and engage a global audience like no other form of art. Not to use it to rip out the dark heart of racism is a Biblical betrayal of talent.
That is why the most cogent criticism of Spielberg and Kushner's timid Lincoln is a satirical sketch by Louis CK. He plays a depressed and needy Lincoln visiting a local coffee shop, incognito, trawling for compliments from the sardonic black worker sitting at the counter.
"You're all emancipated. It's good, right?" says Lincoln. The black guy nods deadpan: "I want to thank President Lincoln for everything he's done for me. Especially my new job of shovelling horse shit into a wagon."