The screenplay for the new “Lincoln” film was written by Tony Kushner (photo at left). Kushner began writing for the screen in 2000. He previously co-wrote the screenplay for “Munich” in 2005, a film also directed by Steven Spielberg. Kushner, who is a secular Jew, is widely known for his criticism of religious extremism in Israeli politics, which has created some controversy within American Jewish circles. His written work includes scripts dealing with homosexuality and he legally married his same-sex partner in 2008. For some this is enough to make them suspicious of this film. I assure you there is no logical or palpable reason to draw such a conclusion.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose work I have often praised on this blog, wrote a November 29 “Evaluation” in the New York Times about the Lincoln film.
In the wide-ranging online conversation about Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln,” it’s been interesting to watch the movie be praised and criticized for the same artistic choice: Its determinedly narrow focus on the month or so of politicking and debate that pushed the 13th Amendment through a reluctant House of Representatives. To the film’s fans — my op-ed colleague David Brooks and A. O. Scott are in-house examples, but there are many others — this narrowing brings the democratic process to life in a way that few political movies ever have, capturing “the squalor and vigor, the glory and corruption of the Republic in action,” as Scott puts it, and throwing Lincoln’s distinctive balance of provisional cynicism and ultimate idealism into sharp relief. To its various detractors, this narrowing is a betrayal of the true story of emancipation, which was actually settled on the ground more than in the halls of Congress, through the agency of slaves as much as by the votes of politicians, and which failed to deliver fully on its promises (thanks to Reconstruction’s failures, and Jim Crow’s ascendance) precisely because of the kind of compromises that “Lincoln” the film treats as the better part of political valor.
One critic of the film, Kate Masur of Evanston, Illinois, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on November 12, wrote:
But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.
This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.
Another critic, Aaron Bady, writing in the journal Jacobin, believes that radical abolitionism is kept at arm’s strength by “Lincoln,” which he blames on the bad faith of Steven Spielberg. Writes Bady:
… to put it quite bluntly, I think the filmmakers made this choice because they wanted to make a polemical point about moderation over radicalism, and I think they picked the story they wanted to tell because it seems to support that position. And yet the historical story they tell only supports that claim if you very selectively frame out most of the context around it, and so they do. And passing a single bill in Congress only comes to seem to represent the broader field of social change and progress—“things” getting “done”— if we ignore the big picture.
But Douthat answers this line of unique criticism by saying:
I think this slightly misreads the film, while also getting at an important point about the difficulties translating the tangle of history into successful, streamlined art. “Lincoln” is a movie about the art of legislative politics, but it isn’t quite a movie about moderation’s superiority to radicalism, as Bady’s plaint suggests. Rather, it’s a film about a moment when a president who styled himself a moderate succeeded in accomplishing what had once seemed a quite radical goal, and did so over the objections and doubts of many of his temporizing friends and allies. The movie’s Lincoln is clearly more careful and cautious than the movie’s representative Republican radical, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, and the latter’s grudging willingness to be more circumspect himself is a crucial hinge moment in the story. But Lincoln is not compromising or watering down Stevens’ immediate goal of writing abolition into the Constitution; instead, he pursues it directly and sincerely, and shows no willingness to compromise on it one iota in order to win votes.
I believe, with Ross Douthat, that Spielberg and Kushner pick this particular historical moment in the process of emancipation not to pit moderation against radicalism but in a clear attempt to harmonize the two approaches by showing how a great leader could actually lead radicals and moderates to work together. What a novel idea for modern critics who always see things as dark black and pure white. If the moderate is willing to avoid becoming intransigent, as Douthat suggests, and the radical is willing to not say everything he/she thinks, then a revolution in law can be accomplished. In fact, it is for this reason that I think “Lincoln” is so wonderfully insightful and provocative at this precise time in American history.
In reality, I believe the path chosen by Kushner and Spielberg is not only faithful to the historical facts but faithful to the arc of a narrative that could well inform our republic in these days. We desperately need a Congress and a president who will find a way to compromise and solve a huge budget crisis that could well send the nation into a new recession. The stakes of our current problems are not nearly so high as those portrayed in “Lincoln” but then who knows where we will go as a people if we cannot reasonably move forward toward sweeping solutions to our looming debt crisis. We need a leader who will seize this moment and reach out to moderates of other persuasions seeking for a solution that is principled but lasting and genuinely effective. So far, we have not seen this kind of leadership.
Douthat says that every historical film has to “ignore the big picture” because actual history is simply too big for the screen. The issue is not whether a writer and producer will edit a story, the issue is rather what to edit, where to edit and why. How do you balance a historical narrative, and the great characters within that narrative, with the kind of audience you intend to attract to your art form while at the same time you are faithful to the historical record that you intend to follow? Thus, concludes Douthat, “The justice ‘Lincoln’ does to its complicated subject is necessarily flawed and incomplete.” Amen. I can see why Kushner and Spielberg made the controversial choices that they did and I believe the end result is one that makes a misunderstood American past more important to people in the present who know way too little about their own country’s important historical turning points.