Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln provocatively presents one of America’s most beloved presidents as a man in full: A war president who broke the back of slavery, but also a roguish pol who reveled in duplicity, skullduggery, and chicanery. Regrettably, Spielberg presents these aforementioned warts as presidential strengths rather than weaknesses.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner delight in presenting our nation’s 16th president as a bit of a scoundrel in his attempts to constitutionally abolish slavery. Lincoln employs crafty fixers to bribe, threaten, and cajole lame-duck congressman to cast affirmative votes for the 13th Amendment. The cinematic bearded one even prolongs the Civil War to ensure the 11 seceded Southern states are denied a vote in the matter.
Say what you will about the lofty goal of correcting a glaring human-rights oversight of the Founding Fathers, the film begs the question of whether the admirable ends justified the underhanded means. No matter that the fixers are a lovable bunch of rascals rife with comedic potential, the downright illegality of their actions is – to this writer – disturbing.
Honest Abe he ain’t. As portrayed as a Machiavellian commander-in-chief steeped in Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” (and a dash of Joseph Stalin) by Daniel Day Lewis, however, it’s no matter. We all know slavery is a blot on the country’s soul, and it needed to be abolished by hook or by crook.
Emphasis on the crook.
But here is Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln – a charming, wisecracking teller of dirty jokes who bends, twists, and contorts all legal decency to ends for which the real-life Lincoln cared little, which includes ending slavery. After all, Lincoln himself wrote in 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
And, yet, audiences are expected to cheer each Congressional vote for the 13th Amendment garnered through deception as John William’s predictable orchestral score swells and a stellar cast eyes each other earnestly. On more than one occasion, your writer intoned under his voice: “Get a room.”
The movie implies the ends justify the means. Since ending slavery is a fait accompli, one might suss the filmmakers would prescribe similar strategies to confront any number of contemporary issues. It worked for Lincoln back in the day, so it should work in this day and age, right? Spielberg’s depiction of Lincoln riding roughshod over the rule of law reminds one of Thomas Friedman’s Meet the Press musings in 2010 that the United States would be much better off if only we could be a totalitarian country for 24 hours.
Spielberg and Kushner succumb to the delusion that smarty-pants artists with multimillion-dollar budgets colluding with anointed intellectuals in office actually know what’s better for the country than the rest of us knuckle-draggers who still believe in a representative democracy. Not unlike President Lincoln, who longed to send freed slaves to colonize Liberia, established the military draft, suspended habeas corpus, shut down countless newspapers and jailed noncompliant journalists, and implemented centralized control of the government like a kid given free rein in a candy store.
In fact, Lincoln’s shortcomings conveniently receive short shrift if dealt with at all in Spielberg’s effort. What matters to Spielberg and Kushner is only how right Lincoln was in the long run regardless the costs. Yes, President Lincoln deserves his place atop history for ending slavery and preserving the union – but that he accomplished these ends through the mass destruction of people, property, and legal rights deserves more scrutiny than it is given in Lincoln.