Although I think this evaluation of the 2013 film, Lincoln, makes a worthwhile read, in some sense I regard this as a failed essay. I set out to express an analytical perspective on this film, but got tangled in my thinking and failed to complete the essay. I have not returned to the essay to see if I could work out my stumbling blocks. I'm deciding to publish it, for now, as it is.
My view was that the film's purpose was basically the cathartic one of letting audiences off the hook for comprising with crime and injustice. In the end, sentimentalizing a hero's tragic demise, the film distances us from our present responsibilities by blurring the clear line between strategical indirection and moral compromise. I'm open to a re-reading and re-evaluation, of course as I always hope to be in all cases, and especially in this case, given my failure to make my argument in a way that satisfied me.
The Assassination of Lincoln - Expiation for Our Sins through the Scapegoating of a PresidentLincoln, the 2013 film, depicts a moral dilemma that might be characterized in this way: How do we take right action in a wrong world? A classic case of catharsis, the film seeks to cleanse us of the worldly pollution of which we partake. Perhaps like all works of of art, it provides us a structure to organize our thoughts and feelings in a satisfying way. As we shall see, the film justifies the compromise of high ideals, or at least of egotistical attachment to such, in the ultimate service of high ideals. Does the end of the film attain to a true spiritual cleansing, or a soap scum film remain after the final shower?
To summarize the plot: Lincoln, the President and Chief Executive, pushes the historic 13th Amendment through Congress, making vigorous use of half-truths and bribes to do so. He wins the necessary votes needed to get the measure passed, primarily by offering government appointments to lame-duck Representatives. Though this behavior doesn't square with the predominant mythical view of "Honest Abe," the backroom political huckstering appears petty and justifiable, excusable one might say, relative to the noble historical objective: The chance to abolish slavery forever from the land. This is an opportunity that cannot be lost.
Through determination and dogged effort, and against the odds, Lincoln and the henchman-like accomplices he hires to do his dirty work, buy off the minimum number of Congressmen and the vote is won. The Amendment passes. The better course prevails. History is made.
Yet, of course, the story does not end here -- we have another few minutes to go before the credits roll. In the wake of the great legal victory, the President is tragically assassinated. Although we feel great sadness, yet our hearts have been lifted high. Here the film ends.
We can identify two great halves to this film, psychologically speaking and politically or socially speaking: One half of the story is the story of the President's achievement, and the presumed underlying noble ideals that drive it. The other part is the depiction of the unsavory socio-political environment in which he succeeds. The "system," the general public, the elected Representatives of the people, the principles by which the economy operates -- none of these are idealized, all are shown to be deeply tainted. In this environment, the soldiers of the ideal lift their heads from the trenches at great risk.
The film's narrative seems constructed to tells us that not even the President -- nor any of us committed to the moral improvement of the nation -- can rely on free and open discussion, nor any presumed general goodness of the People or its elected representatives for right principles and ideals to prevail.
To the contrary, the film makes an effort to convey that high commitments to noble, but unpopular and "radical" ideals -- like Thaddeus Stevens' counter-cultural commitment to enfranchising the blacks (not to mention his own interracial love relationship, revealed only at the film's very end) -- must be toned down and hidden from the world in order not to inflame the conservative fundamentalist temper, and thereby risk backlash and possibly overturn the whole applecart. Stevens is something like a stand-in for today's conspiracy theorists or whistleblowers who, dare they impugn the status quo, risk ridicule and banishment, along with anyone who associates with them.
Hence, in the end, the paragon of principle, Mr. Stevens, is ironically lionized for suppressing his beliefs that blacks should be entitled to vote. And thanks to his strategic silence about his inner convictions, the right-wingers' plan -- to portray the Amendment as part of an agenda to enfranchise blacks and to deem them political equals to the whites -- gets no wind for its sails. Had Stevens admitted his support for black enfranchisement, the Amendment would have failed to win the necessary support. Not standing up for what he believes in, not speaking his heart, in this case, earns the man a halo.
This paradoxical compromise seems to be the core tension of the film. While the film simultaneously elevates Lincoln for his high commitments, and justifies his backroom dealing, it depicts a world that is deeply morally compromised. Idealists must be practical and sneaky, and not tell the whole truth to dirty ears.
Now to realize any value in this film whatsoever, we need to understand that, through the lens of 1865, the film of course is speaking to who and where we are today.
[what the psychologists call splitting - we kill Lincoln to justify the world, and we deify him to cleanse our souls. in the end, have we changed the status quo? ]