- Spielberg’s LincolnThe Great Emancipator Returns
It begins in the mud and blood of battle. It ends in the heavens—or at least in some kind of twinkling afterlife. The face of the slain president forms in a flame and speaks, transporting us back to the Second Inaugural, six weeks before. Lincoln lives again, pleading with us “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”1 The apotheosis is complete.
Lincoln is not mere hagiography, however. Only in the last twenty minutes or so of the film do the filmmakers lose their careful control. Only then do they fall back on familiar heroic tableaux: an ashen Lincoln riding over a bloody battlefield, an exchange of honorable hat doffs between Grant and Lee at Appomattox, Lincoln surrounded by dignitaries and friends as he breathes his last. Before those final sequences, the film gives us a much less familiar Lincoln. He is ungainly, hardly the rail-splitter of iconography. He does not orate as much as nasalize. He swears. But most important, and surely most surprising to audiences, he is not the Lincoln who bestows on an unready nation the Emancipation Proclamation, telling all who will listen that the measure is his crowning achievement. Rather, he is a Lincoln consumed by the proclamation’s failings. The inadequacy of the Emancipation Proclamation is not an incidental matter. It is the foundation on which the film rests. That is a remarkable artistic choice, especially in a film delivered to theaters on the eve of the proclamation’s 150th anniversary. And despite all the film’s flaws, from the trivial (the wrong uniform on Grant) to the improbable (Lincoln slapping his son Robert’s face) to the absurd (Lydia Smith and Thaddeus Stevens in bed reading the enrolled resolution for the Thirteenth Amendment), the decision to focus on the fate of emancipation after the proclamation must be respected for its shrewdness and originality.
Yet, even though the film offers a fresh approach by following the less familiar terrain of emancipation after the proclamation, it stumbles a bit along the way and in at least three places falls very flat indeed. One of [End Page 549] these missteps is the transposition of the present upon the past: politics in 1865 is depicted through the lens of politics today. A second is the use of a piece of historical fiction as a central premise: that in January 1865 Lincoln faced a choice between securing the antislavery amendment or negotiating an end to the war; Lincoln opted for the amendment and thus, we are led to believe, prolonged the war to serve the higher cause of black freedom. A third misstep is the embrace of an interpretation of the past now renounced by most historians: that Lincoln’s untimely death led to a dismal era of Reconstruction. These elements may make for poor history, but they also enhance the drama significantly. Indeed, the narrative structure and moral power of the film would have withered if the filmmakers had opted at every turn for factual accuracy over good storytelling. Lincoln, then, offers historians and non-historians alike an opportunity to return to two age-old and related questions: How responsible are filmmakers for getting history right? And if they don’t get it right, is their film really that much worse off?
When it comes to historical accuracy, Lincoln gets more right than it gets wrong, and foremost among its strengths as a historical text is its assessment of the Emancipation Proclamation as inadequate in the abolition of the law of slavery. The inadequacy of the proclamation as a legal measure is complicated. Rather than flatten this complexity, Tony Kushner’s script engages with it and makes it central to the film, putting the key issues into Lincoln’s voice and language.
Early on, during a cabinet meeting in which Lincoln defends his push for the antislavery amendment, he offers a brilliant, lawyerly, and entirely fictional summation. Throughout the war, Lincoln explains, he has used presidential “war powers” embedded in the Constitution to justify his actions against slavery. No one knows what those...