The big-budget biopic eschews nuance in favor of myth.
I suppose that I know as much about Abraham Lincoln as the next American. I know him by his nicknames, “Honest Abe” and “The Great Emancipator.” I know he served as President during the Civil War and was the first U.S. President to be assassinated, shot in Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. I could probably even rattle off a few lines of his most famous speech, The Gettysburg Address, you know, the one that begins, “Four score and seven years ago…” Like many of our nation’s early, great leaders there seems to be a good deal of confusion as to the distinction of myth and man where Lincoln is concerned. And confusion is putting it mildly. There is outright controversy on the topic, as I was somewhat surprised to discover numerous websites and books calling into question the nature of Lincoln’s character and casting doubt on his legacy. Paul Webb, the author of the screenplay Lincoln, a big-budget biopic of the 16th President to be directed by Steven Spielberg, has obviously read none of them. Or if he has, he is thumbing his nose at Lincoln’s detractors by portraying him in all of his mythic glory.
Lincoln follows the life of Lincoln (hopefully this doesn’t get overly redundant) from his first inauguration throughout his Presidency during the Civil War until his death. This is a fairly ambitious undertaking considering Glory, which told the story of the all-black 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, has a run-time of two hours and Gettysburg, which followed that singular battle, has a run-time of over four hours. This ambition in addition to the writers’ desire to paint Lincoln as a hero of mythic proportions is the biggest weakness of a script that attempts to ride the fence between pop culture legend and historical accuracy. What do I mean by that? This is not a fictional story. The characters herein were not simply thought up by the writers to advance a plot. These are real people with lives and histories and families. There is a factual record of when and where the battles took place, who won and who lost and at what cost. The U.S. Civil War was fought from 1861-1865 in a theater that stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. In order to condense all of that into a film that will run around two hours means *much* has been omitted, and what is presented is fragmented and filled with minor characters that come and go and are reduced to single dimensions. This seems to me to be a bit of a shame.
For example, George McClellan was a major general in the Union Army. He has been recognized as a great martial organizer and immensely popular with his troops, yet he is notorious for his recalcitrance to launch offensives against Confederate forces in Virginia in the early days of the war. There has been an ongoing debate for years amongst historians over McClellan’s character, courage, and reasons for not attacking, which some have argued had more to do with his fondness for the men under his command than any alleged Confederate sympathies he might have had. Yet all of this is cast aside in Lincoln as he is portrayed simply as a racist who is disagreeable with the notion that the war is being fought to free black slaves. As he informs President Lincoln in a private meeting, “I will tell you plainly, sir, – this army will not fight. . . for the negro.”
In contrast to all of these cardboard cut-outs that make brief appearances in the film, Lincoln is the only character given real attention (it’s his story, after all). But even here, as I said, complexity of character and insight into the man is tossed out the window in favor of advancing the myth. Lincoln is presented almost as some kind of superhero. True he was born and raised in poverty, struggled to educate himself, and eventually entered public service and won the highest office in the country. Maybe he had some of the following character traits, but in Lincoln he is a man of immense intelligence, compassion, humor, humility, emotional strength, physical strength, resolve, conviction, principles, etc, etc. This is a man who, when we are first introduced to him, is getting his photograph taken before venturing to Washington. He is holding a wooden log in one hand and an axe in the other. After the photo is taken, Lincoln lets go of the log, and chops it cleanly in two while it is in mid-air. Later while traveling on a steamboat Lincoln notices several young men having a friendly competition of a feat of strength – seeing who can hold an axe by the handle-tip out at arm’s length the longest. We see one especially stout fellow who bests all the others with a time of three minutes. Lincoln asks if he can give it a try, and not only does he beat that time, he holds the axe out for over four minutes. Obviously these scenes are in place to inform the audience in no uncertain terms that Lincoln was a bad ass.
Like I said, maybe Lincoln did have some of these character traits. I’ve read he worked hard labor as a young man, and there are witness accounts of his impressive physical stature. Maybe these are historically accurate. Maybe. And hey, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with presenting Lincoln as the myth, as the ideal of what a President should be, right? Even if that means omitting actions taken by Lincoln during the Civil War that our current President (one of the most derided in history) is quite fond of. True, the script makes no mention of Lincoln imprisoning close to twenty thousand suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial, or his suspending the right of habeas corpus, literally removing a person’s right to protest unlawful imprisonment, which was in direct defiance of a U.S. Circuit Court’s decision overturning his action. And while that’s questionable, at least they’re not just making shit up and lying outright. OH WAIT, that’s exactly what they’re doing. To wit: at one point in the script Lincoln meets with abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the height of the Civil War and tells him, “I want to set up, as a matter of the greatest urgency, an underground railroad system that can bring people out of the furthest recesses of the South.” To which Douglass says in open-mouthed I’d-give-you-a-handjob-if-you-want-it kind of way, “You, Mr. President, are a true original. You never cease to surprise.”
A DAMNABLE LIE!
The Underground Railroad, a loosely organized operation to transport black slaves out of the South, was in process as early as 1810 – when Lincoln was still a baby. It was ongoing from that time through 1850 (before Lincoln took office) and during the Civil War. The man who is credited with founding the Underground Railroad is Isaac T. Hopper. As far as I can tell, Lincoln had no direct involvement in this effort. If it’s not clear why this is such a big deal, allow me to explain. This is not one of those movies that is advertised as “Based on actual events” but is, in actuality, >95% utter bullshit. Lincoln purports itself to be a biopic, a film about an individual and about events for which there is a historical record. Hell, at one point in the script the writers cite Bruce Catton, a Pullitzer Prize winning American Civil War historian, to defend their depiction of a scene explaining why Union commanders refused to pursue defeated Confederate forces in the aftermath of a particular battle. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim historical accuracy and present blatant falsehoods. To skew facts presenting Lincoln as an idealized version is one thing, to simply make shit up without regard for the facts is another thing entirely. The former I can accept, but the latter I can not. I realize I’ve focused heavily on a single aspect of this script, but factual accuracy is especially important for a script such as Lincoln. If the writers can’t get this right, does any of the rest matter?