Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, has been immortalized in just about every form possible. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is only the latest effort to valorize Lincoln in his quest to end slavery and enfranchise African-Americans.
Glamorizing and whitewashing presidents’ terms in office is nothing new and is in fact a routine part of political makeovers. As soon as George Bush Jr. was out of office, efforts to resuscitate his image began. Former president Jimmy Carter is often thought of as a humanitarian, which ignores the fact that during his presidential term, the U.S. government backed dubious and undemocratic regimes in Iran, Zaire and the Philippines.
But as soon as I started watching Lincoln, something irked me. In an effort make him out to be a hero, Lincoln became a recipient of this same sort of political rebranding.
I do appreciate that Spielberg chose to adapt The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which in some regards enlightened the public of the machinations and maneuvering Lincoln partook in regularly. Although this could certainly nurture an alternative perspective on the president and his legacy, the overall tone of the film was one of support for American cultural imperialism and patriotism.
Did the film examine Lincoln’s shortcomings in office? No. Even films like Oliver Stone’s W looked at instances of failure in George Bush’s presidency. But under the direction of Spielberg, Lincoln is personified as a long-winded but gifted rhetorician, a patient and loving husband and father and an advocate for abolition.
While I commend Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, which truly seemed to possess the essence of Lincoln’s archetypical character, I was extremely disappointed that neither Spielberg nor any of the writing team decided to look into conflicting or alternative portrayals of Lincoln.
Instead, the entire film fixates on bringing the audience to the story climax, where everyone can celebrate the triumph of Lincoln’s hard work and dedication to forever altering American society.
And by the time it closes (spoiler alert) with Lincoln’s assassination, we, the audience, are so emotionally attached to this arbiter of morality, that we leave the theatre assured that Lincoln was a great president and a great man. Even more so because he is portrayed as a martyr.
His ability to pass the 13th amendment, and thus obtain freedom for all African-Americans, is a positive thing. But using his crown achievement to suggest that Lincoln was a hero and an activist for equality is misguided and manipulates the historical record.
When it came to his treatment of Native Americans, Lincoln had an atrocious record of addressing equality rights. Just prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring an end to slavery, he also enacted The Homestead Act, which removed thousands of indigenous people from their lands.
Lincoln also ordered the execution of 38 Santee Sioux men, simply because they refused to leave their ancestral land. This act marked the largest public execution in American history.
Lincoln does make some effort to show how the president was probably more concerned with the positive political implications than the moral implications of ending slavery. But it’s that surge of emotional attachment and pride for Lincoln and his presidency that the film actively promotes, which I believe has the stronger and more tangible affect on the audience.
So go see Lincoln, appreciate the realism of the set, costume and perhaps even some of the acting. But please realize that this film has an agenda. Just because the guy has been dead for over a century doesn’t make it any less manipulative or relevant to the political branding today.