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One of my favorite films from 2012: Lincoln

Posted by Charles Reece, January 20, 2013 10:16pm | Post a Comment
lincoln poster

Intellectual critics tend to hate Steven Spielberg's films, and Lincoln is no exception. The nastiest laceration I've come across is from one of my favorite social critics, Thomas Frank


Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed. This is, in short, what Lincoln is about.

It is true that the film dramatizes Lincoln's greatest achievement by showing the less than pure, even immoral, underbelly of the politics involved: the cajoling, lying, shaming, threatening and bribery. In doing so, it also argues that a radical "killjoy" like Thaddeus Stevens has to publicly repress his own views in order to get things done -- in this case, passing the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. (Imagine radical voices not being heard in this country! Hard to believe.) Frank condemns the film for what it doesn't show: those times when such morally compromised methods lead to or support political corruption. But he never really gets around to the fundamental point here: politics is always compromised, even when on the side of angels. And contrary to his take, the film does make distinctions in compromise: Lincoln goes beyond the law with the intention of freeing the slaves (who are legally enslaved), but doesn't compromise with the Confederates in order to end the war when it wouldn't serve his (very moral) goal of changing the law. And, more importantly, the film shows us what's needed when democratic compromise breaks down. Adam Smith argued that slavery could be more easily ended under a "despotic" rather than "free government" when it was the "freedom of the free" that was "the cause of the great oppression of the slaves," that is, when "every law is made by their masters, who will never pass any thing prejudicial to themselves." [quoted in Liberalism: A Counter-History, p. 6, by Domenico Losurdo] Sure enough, it was extra-legal measures that vanquished slavery: a war and Lincoln's temporary dictatorship (e.g., his suspension of habeas corpus). For this, his critics called him a despot. They weren't entirely wrong, but he proved to be the kind of despot we needed. We haven't really had Abe the Dictator presented to us in the movies, for which I found the film -- whatever creative license Tony Kushner took with the script -- refreshingly honest.

Relevant Tags

Lincoln (4), Steven Spielberg (4), Best Of 2012 (31), Best Films (10)