If you read Roger Ebert’s reviews long enough, you start to notice the general toolkit of rules he brings to the task. Two of them have stood me in particularly good stead: One, the movie is not about what it’s about, it’s about how it’s about it. And two, critique the movie you saw, not the one you wish you’d seen.
Unfortunately, there’s also a tension between the two. How a movie is about its subject is determined not just by what it chooses to put on screen, but by what it may choose to leave off. If a film presents us with female characters who are passive, lacking in interiority and morally maleable, it could just be a coincidence. Those just might have been the only female characters to fall within the reach of the narrative. But it’s also a distinct possibility that women as agency-lacking objects, meant for the uses of men, is a notion baked into the film’s worldview. And figuring out which is which can be tough, given the inherent subjectivity of the viewing experience; how a particular line-reading, performance, or even just the framing of a shot reads to an audience member can pitch them over into one camp or the other.
So I sympathize when historians Eric Foner and Kate Masur, followed by writers Corey Robin and Aaron Bady, take Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to task for not bringing up the considerable political spadework African-Americans contributed to the process of their own emancipation and the arrival of the 13th Amendment on the House floor. They’re pointing out how ideology and privilege cramp and distort the ways we narrate history back to ourselves. And that’s tough. If mainstream history is what mainstream audiences know when watching a mainstream film, then hitting the film because mainstream history is wrong leaves few obvious leverage points. As Brady points out, if someone hasn’t read W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction In America (I haven’t) it’s hard to even get the conversation off the ground.
But you still have to go through the business of laying out your foundations and prior premises. If you don’t, you come off like Robin, accusing Spielberg of being “blinkered” – and by implication, power-struck and quasi-racist – for no reason other than he didn’t tell the story you wanted. Foner’s critique that Lincoln isn’t “inaccurate,” just “inadequate,” is equally silly. It’s a two-and-a-half hour film, not a novel or mini-series documentary. Of course it’s inadequate. A film showing the full historical sweep of slavery’s political downfall would be either a massive Lord-of-the-Rings-style epic or a shallow, event-hopping Forrest Gump knock-off. Picking one worthwhile story is always going to mean leaving other worthwhile stories out. Let’s not commit the category error of expecting a film to do what films are not designed to do.
Rather, for the argument to stick, you have to demonstrate that the slice of history the filmmakers chose to tell is in fact unworthy. That they left all the really important stuff to the side. That, rather like someone who would trawl through the whole history of the Klu Klux Klan to find some obscure episode in which the group does not come off as racist, and then film that tale, they lied through omission.
Bady, to his credit, makes this explicit: “In the big picture, the Thirteenth Amendment, on its own, just isn’t that important, and much of the forced suspense of the movie—will they pass it?—comes from an artificial sense that more is at stake in a single congressional bill than there actually was.” And he backs this up by laying out an alternative reading of history and the American political process, in which the stuff that really makes for progress is driven by the thousands, if not millions, of unsung individuals pressing for change across the country. What goes on in the halls of Congress and the White House – then as usually now the domain of rich white men, given our history of class injustice and white supremacy – is merely the tail of elephant.
This reading certainly isn’t crazy, but I’m not on board with it. Not in that it unduly emphasizes the agitation of the people – our public discourse does overemphasize presidential power while ignoring the importance of what goes on between elections. Bady just overcorrects, unduly diminishing the mechanics of what goes on upon Capitol Hill. I don’t have the historical chops to hazard an opinion on whether slavery was already a dead letter by the time the 13th Amendment was passed. And there’s reason to think that Lincoln over-dramatizes the make-or-break importance of passing the amendment in the lame duck congressional session the film covers. Or to think that Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have provided a new and helpful synthesis.
At any rate, that sort of dramatic heightening is not dishonesty. It’s the inevitable consequence of trying to shove a bite of history into cinematic packaging. We visit history to understand the present, and that’s good and healthy and human. Contra Robin, it’s also human to find ourselves perpetually returning to the same tensions and epiphanies. We are part of history, not above it. So we’re always going to be relearning the same lessons, one of which is the inherent moral contradiction – the possible nobility and the inevitable dirtiness — of this thing we’ve invented called politics. What goes on at Capitol Hill does matter: just look at the failure of the Clinton-era push for health care reform, or Obamacare’s several near-death experiences. Even after a movement has gathered its force, it must still put its shoulder to the wheel without slipping. Contemplating both the mechanics and philosophy of that makes the specific legislative fight for the 13th Amendment a worthy story to tell, I’d say.
What’s more, even as Lincoln’s critics ask us to move away from the great man theory of history, they inadvertently fall into a great man theory of filmmaking by laying the film’s problems entirely at Spielberg and Kushner’s doorstep. What of the film industry itself, a place where the positions of economic and creative power, and thus the ability to choose the stories, remain almost entirely in the hands of white men? What of Hollywood’s skittishness, shallowness, and risk-aversion, which convinces executives that stories focused on non-white characters will not sell, and that audiences do not want historical narratives? Such a lack of opportunity will lead equally worthy stories to cannibalize one another. Given the decentralized, bottom-up view Lincoln’s critics take of slavery’s dismantling, they say nary a word of the activism, organization and institution-building it will take to shift the entire ecosystem in which Spielberg and Kushner swim. We should not be waiting on white saviors to deliver our filmmaking anymore than to deliver our political progress.
On the other hand, Kate Masur took a different route with her critique, and it’s by far the most cutting of the lot. She lays out specific instances of African-American activity within Washington, D.C. in the weeks chronicled by the film, and ways the filmmakers could have integrated them into Lincoln’s narrative. These are useful, concrete suggestions, and if there is any justice in the world Masur’s article has already been passed around Spielberg’s offices and other producers have taken note. And if Spielberg and Kushner did just miss the material, the blinding effects of privilege on the privileged is certainly high in the running for explaining how the oversight occurred.
But even then, there are problems with Masur’s suggestions. She provides no concrete mechanism by which Washington’s African-American activists could have participated concretely in the legislative process the film chronicles, meaning black characters would’ve been reduced to sounding boards for Lincoln’s struggles. It’s not clear this approach would have avoided the tokenism the film only barely maneuvers around as it is.
More importantly – and this gets at the traps critics can fall into if they’re not familiar with the often Kafa-esque practicalities of film production – many of the choices that go into a film are merely banal rather than political. Bady observes that we barely see anything of the capital city, much less its populace, but this could’ve been purely due to budget constraints. The production cost roughly $65 million – which, sad to say, is not that much these days. There are the problems of casting and scheduling. There’s the more mercurial question of whether the script just works. Bady suspects the filmmakers chose the historical episode they did for ideological reasons — a point I’ll revisit momentarily — but it’s equally possible it was the bite of history they thought they could pull off as dramatic storytelling. (And once a movie has chosen its historical episode, it can’t very well admit to its audience that what’s going wasn’t actually all that important.) When Spielberg and Kushner ultimately ditched the idea of telling the story of Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglas, there are a thousand reasons they could’ve had, the vast majority of them utterly benign. There are even matters of pacing, focus, narrative economy, and the patience of the audience to consider. As it stands, Lincoln’s one major subplot is the President’s relationships with his wife and son, and it’s hands down the weakest part of the film.
Indeed, as someone who has been obsessed with movies his whole life, went to film school, and tried his own hand at (embarrassingly small) efforts to write and direct, one of the things I appreciated about Lincoln was the fleetness of foot amidst heavy dialogue provided by the film’s laser-like focus on the amendment’s passage. Which is to say, what Masur, Foner, Bady and Robin found to be a weakness in the film’s historical perspective, I found to be a strength in terms of its craft. All good things cannot be made to go together. Which is why Lincoln, in its thematics, is right to reject the romanticism Bady calls for.
That brings us to the final thrust of Bady’s argument, which is that Spielberg and Kushner are to blame “because they wanted to make a polemical point about moderation over radicalism, and I think they picked the story they wanted to tell because it seems to support that position.” Recalling the point about subjectivity, I’m convinced Bady and I saw different cuts, as I completely disagree with his read on the film as an attempt to denigrate Thaddeus Stevens and the radicals.
If a filmmaker is aiming for their audience to look down on a particular character, casting Tommy Lee Jones to play them is probably not the best idea. In many ways, Stevens is more of a moral core to the film than Lincoln himself. His basement lecture to Lincoln about the moral degeneracy of white Americans is brutal and true. Indeed, one of the central pathos of the film is that Stevens is right, but that being right is not enough. One must also be smart, and willing to take a shot at morally impossible choices. Lincoln himself chooses to prolong a war in order to give the 13th Amendment a shot at passage. To quote Ross Douthat’s response: “By picking this particular moment in the process of emancipation, then, Spielberg and Kushner… show how a moderate and a radical can work together… That harmony helps makes ‘Lincoln’ an effective and crowdpleasing film: In the slice of history that the film illuminates, our contemporary pro-equality sympathies can be with both Lincoln and Stevens unreservedly, both men’s gifts can be displayed for the appreciation of posterity — and no violence need be done to what actually transpired.”
As Douthat observes, had Spielberg and Kushner chosen an earlier moment in the Civil War, moderation would probably have come off better, what with the need to keep the border states in line. Pick a storyline from Reconstruction, and our failure to be radical enough in tearing out, root and branch, slavery’s institutional and economic legacy in the South would come to the fore. “Radicalism” and “moderation” are ultimately just words, and the world will demand whatever solution it will demand to any particular problem. Lincoln’s best moments are the ones where broken humans leap into the dark between the two poles, tasked with inhuman responsibilities by their civilization, grasping at the nobility and absolution politics promises but leaves just out of reach.
In interviews, Kushner himself has come down pretty firmly on the side of moderation, particularly with a bizarre – and within the limits of my historical knowledge, wildly inaccurate – assertion that the South’s reintegration into the Union would’ve been less poisonous had the North been more forgiving. (Bady does a particularly good job debunking this.) But it’s a tribute to Kushner’s ability as a writer, and the nature of filmmaking as a collaborative process, that Lincoln the film is considerably more divided in its sympathies to the two approaches.
Lincoln is certainly not a flawless film. But like all works of worthy art, it manages to transcend the limitations of both its medium and its creators.