Fri. November 16
Spielberg’s Lincoln: Sometimes It’s What You Don’t Say
In order to prepare for my role as a paid movie-going customer to the film Lincoln at The Landmark Theater in Los Angeles, CA, I chose to live inside the building for a month beforehand. Surviving on nothing but Sour Patch Kids and those half-popped popcorn kernels no one eats at the bottom of their bag, I studied the subtleties and nuanced mannerisms of the average American cinema enthusiast.
If I was going to be able to match the commitment that my favorite actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, puts into the preparation for any new role he decides to undertake, I needed to know that I wasn’t going to “break character” during the two hour and forty minute run-time of Steven Spielberg’s biopic. I wanted to be able to proudly tell my friends, family, and readers that I drank that movie’s milkshake.
After screening the film over the weekend, I’m happy to report back: mission accomplished!
Without a doubt, Lincoln is a wonderful film. Covering the final months of both the Civil War and President Lincoln’s own life, Spielberg takes the audience on an in-depth behind-the-scenes tour through the legislative back-room dealings which culminated in the passage of the–spoiler alert!—thirteenth amendment. (Note: if that was an actual spoiler for you, I’d like the tax money I’m paying for public education back, please.)
Day-Lewis is superb, as one expects at this point from the multi-Oscar-winning actor, but it is the depth and breadth of the ensemble cast that fills in the remainder of the film. The stellar performances from David Strathairn, James Spader, and Tommy Lee Jones give viewers a chance to focus on something other than the unshakable “Wait, is that really Abraham Lincoln on the screen?” thought bouncing around their heads any time Daniel Day-Lewis is even just walking by in the background of the shot.
I had only one serious qualm with Lincoln, and I think it important enough to mention here.
The study and teaching of history is an imperfect science. I get that. Certainly there is hard data–the dates that events occurred, kings who ruled, or names of civilizations that existed–which can be fairly difficult to screw up or slant one ideological way or the other. But there is also a great deal of interpretation that the person relaying the events of history can choose to imbue their textbook, scholarly paper, or feature film with. Sometimes the issue of potential biases on the part of the person communicating a piece of history are to be found in what it not said, what is held back or downplayed, more than anything else.
Such is the case with certain aspect of Lincoln.
The abolitionist movement was in many ways the result of the Second Great Awakening, a Christian spiritual revival in the first part of the nineteenth century that swept the country and convicted many Americans on the importance of ending the “scourge” of slavery. Among those who fought to bring the matter before Congress, faith was a primary motivating factor. And while the personal vitality of President Lincoln’s private faith has been questioned by some historians in recent years, his rhetoric on the issue of slavery was drenched in Judeo-Christian, biblical morality (and consistently, even direct quotes from Scripture). This reality does not make Christianity the national religion, nor does it shame or exclude the faith traditions of any American citizen before or since.
So why almost no mention of these things in a film that is, more than anything else, about the critical push to pass the law that ended the most shameful chapter in our nation’s history? Directors and screenwriters are only too happy to wrap the faith of a character around his or her neck if he or she is depicting a despicable hypocrite or philanderer, but why no love for the undeniable religiosity of so many courageous social/political warriors when they were a driving force behind one of our nation’s proudest moments?
If Christianity must accept the fact that many so-called believers justified slavery in the South by misappropriating the teachings of their faith, why can it never get so much as a shout-out for the role it played in confronting slavery in the nineteenth century and racism in the twentieth?
Think what a difference it would make in the way students and consumers of pop culture perceive Christianity (or simply, faith in general) if every time the topic of slavery came up they were informed that, to one degree or another, Christianity confronted Christianity on the matter–and Christianity won?
Some questions to ponder as you enjoy what is, on the whole, a wonderful film and inspiring story from a talented director and magnificent cast.