Conservatives Can Learn from the Flaws in Spielberg's Lincoln

Upon Abraham Lincoln's death, the collective grief contributed to what some historians, like Merrill D. Peterson, have named "apotheosis."  Walt Whitman's poems dedicated to Lincoln, like "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," made Abe an otherworldly artifact unlike any other president:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,

Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,

With the pomp of the inloop'd flags with the cities draped in black,

With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil'd women standing,

With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,

With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,

With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,

With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,

With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour'd around the coffin,

The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs-where amid these you journey,

With the tolling tolling bells' perpetual clang,

Here, coffin that slowly passes,

I give you my sprig of lilac.

What makes Lincoln such a sacred centerpiece of American memory is also what makes him such a dreadful protagonist in film.  Spielberg's Lincoln might have been kinder to its eponymous hero had it libeled him; instead, it made him boring.

In marble or on a canvas, you can perfect a human subject, like Jacques-Louis David's oil painting of Napoleon; in film or plays, the fear of doing any injustice to a beloved subject leaves the narrative two-dimensional, flat, and predictable.

Impeccable men make perfect stories, but perfect stories make boring movies.  Nobody has ever made a truly memorable film about Ronald Reagan.  Imagine the dramatic tension, or lack of it: Reagan won the Cold War and built a fabulous library in Simi Valley before passing away as a great man.  Not much suspense or moral uncertainty there.  The most controversial thing his son's memoir could say about Dutch was that he may have had Alzheimer's while he was still president.  Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King is nowhere near as interesting as Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes.

Bruno Ganz's interpretation of Adolf Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2004 Downfall became such a wonderful YouTube meme because of Hirschbiegel's and Ganz's undeniable ambivalence about their nation's utmost monster.  Just as happened when I forced my students in a biography class to read Inside the Third Reich, the viewer can't help but wonder, "Am I really feeling sympathy for Adolf Hitler, Magda Goebbels, and Eva Braun?"

Complex examinations into the ambiguities of controversial personalities outshine paeans, hagiographies, or encomiums.  Oliver Stone's Nixon mesmerized me; I await, one day, the film version of Buchanan Dying; Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher in Iron Lady was nothing less than divine.  In all these cases, filmmakers ended up humanizing their subject in spite of themselves.  The "in spite of" makes all the difference for a viewer interested in three-dimensional narratives.  Even the campy musical 1776, for all its dancing and rhyming, illuminated the fraught minds of John Adams and John Dickinson, men neither purely heroic nor purely villainous.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is perhaps the best one can expect of a film about Lincoln, a historical figure whom almost nobody is willing to question or disparage.  Yes, there is some moral ambiguity in the film's Machiavellian disquisitions.  The basic lesson that one mustn't make the perfect the enemy of the good comes across loud and clear.  But such a didactic objective cannot fill a whole two and a half hours of cinema viewing time.  Nor can it fulfill the high-stakes promise of personality implicit in the title named after a luminary of American history.

The narrative vacuum is aggravated by Daniel Day-Lewis's interpretation of the president as avuncular, upstanding, and benevolent, even when his crazy wife is screaming at him.  Seeing the film in late December, I stayed awake and suffered like a martyr, but it was hard to pay attention through the sounds of snoring from various corners of the cinema.

To enjoy the film, as many have, one must find the topic of congressional procedure engrossing, since the crescendo is a vote in the House of Representatives, absent any real footage to illustrate the real-life effect of ending slavery.  It might help to be a lawyer or an expert on constitutional law.

Herein lies a problem conservatives must solve in the near future -- a problem punctuated by Louis Michael Seidman's recent dismissal of the Constitution in the New York Times and the understandable right-wing fury in response.  While many conservatives find the twists and turns of constitutional history fascinating, especially the eighteenth-century twists and turns, a very large section of the American populace longs for more human narratives than "articles," "sections," and "amendments," regardless of how interesting the Federalist Papers are.  Reading James Madison's letters engages my college juniors less than does reading John and Abigail Adams's passionate letters to each other.

Seidman's extremism is contemptible, but there must also be some way for constitutional conservatives to translate the underlying human principles in their sacred document into stories that can truly touch people's hearts, even change their minds.  A key ingredient missing from so much debate about the Constitution is the elusive elixir of moral-emotional complexity.  The flatness of Lincoln should serve as a useful index of what conservatives must avoid in political discourse going forward; otherwise, they risk becoming a closed-off constitutional debate society that their country no longer feels connected to.

The brief time span covered by Spielberg's Lincoln featured plenty of dramatic vehicles that could have propelled the film into the realm of emotional craft.  Some of the casting and script decisions hamstrung the movie right away.  Sally Field is in her late sixties and should have never been cast as Mary Todd Lincoln, who was in her late forties.  (How can a 66-year-old woman have a 14-year-old son in the 1860s, with no fertilization technology?  Hello?)  Besides being too old and tired-looking, Field also lacked the whimsical vanity that underlay the First Lady's famous tantrums.  Having taught Elizabeth Keckley's memoirs for over ten years, I was also aghast at Gloria Reuben's portrayal of Mrs. Lincoln's famous black seamstress.  Keckley's voice in her memoirs Behind the Scenes isn't marble-like and austere, as Reuben played her.  Keckley is tough, sometimes wisecracking, often frustrated with Mrs. Lincoln's petulance, independent-minded, and equally vicious toward other black people at times.  At one point she revisits her former owners with fondness; later, she criticizes freed blacks as having ill-used their freedom.

In short, the real tragedy of Lincoln is the abundance of material in Abe's story that lay unused.  There could have been a real personal arc, a human interest story, or a forceful meditation on the nature of war, national identity, race, labor, modernization, family, power, and loss.  To set such a thing up, however, would be to break certain taboos and consider that the end of slavery ushered in an industrial and corporate age at the root of the modern Democratic Party's central grievances.  It would be fun to go there, but nobody in Hollywood wants to get on liberals' bad side, and anything less than slobbering love for Abraham Lincoln would be sure to inflame conservatives.  What we are left with, therefore, is another Steven Spielberg movie, flawless in its execution -- so flawless, it puts the imperfect humans who go to see movies to sleep.  Consider this a cautionary tale for conservatives.

Robert Oscar Lopez is the author of three works of fiction coming out in 2013.  The first, Johnson Park, will be available on Amazon in March 2013.