It’s silly to expect historical accuracy from a history drama. Even historians get things wrong, so demanding scholarly rigour from a film would be both unrealistic and beside the point. Films are there to entertain, not to educate.
Having said that, neither does one want to be exposed to irritating ideological bias. Bending history for dramatic effect, à la The Tudors, is perfectly acceptable. Bending it to score mendacious political points, à la Oliver Stone or Costa-Gavros, makes one rush out of the cinema in a huff after the first 15 minutes.
In the case of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, I won’t even give it that long. The trailer told me everything I needed to know.
The most obvious, if extraneous, point is that it ought to be clear to anyone other than the groupies responsible for Oscars that Daniel Day-Lewis is miscast in the title role. I realise he has won all sorts of accolades from US critics, but those chaps ought to have their eyes peeled and their ears unplugged.
Day-Lewis isn’t everyone’s cup of bourbon under the best of circumstances. I for one find him much too histrionic for words, although, like that proverbial curate’s egg, he’s good in parts. The circumstances in which Lincoln thrusts him, however, are far from the best.
Day-Lewis looks funny in Lincoln makeup, and I don’t think he was expected to play the role for laughs. The beard in particular looks pasted on, even if it isn’t. And in the short trailer his accent crisscrossed the Atlantic several times, alternately sounding Irish, scouse and New England (Lincoln was a Midwesterner). But that’s by the bye.
What’s really off-putting is that the film, as can be reliably judged even from the trailer, represents yet another prong in the leftist propaganda assault, using history to score present-day points. Actually ‘leftist propaganda’ is a tautology for propaganda is always leftwing. Just try to say ‘conservative propaganda’. Doesn’t quite ring possible, does it?
In this instance the film tackles, however indirectly, the Civil War, in which America suffered greater casualties than in all her other conflicts combined, including the two world wars. Anyone who has seen Confederate flags flown all over the South will know that the war continues to divide the nation even now, and not just along the Mason-Dixon line.
In broad strokes and with some exceptions, conservatives believe that the wrong side won, whereas those on the left, including the neocons, don’t. Consequently, the second group tends to treat the 1860s Civil War as the precursor of the 1960s civil rights movement, which the conservatives, who tend to eschew ideological mendacity for intellectual honesty, know it wasn’t.
There’s no question that slavery was deplorable, but no war was necessary to get rid of it. That institution was moribund anyway, which was proved by Russia, a country not then, or for that matter now, noted for its commitment to human liberties. Yet Russian serfs were freed a year before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and with nary a shot fired in anger.
Interestingly, many Northern generals were themselves slave-owners, while many Southern commanders weren’t. And Lincoln’s own attitude to blacks wasn’t impeccably consonant with the demands of our PC times.
Abolition of slavery wasn’t the reason for the war; it was its slogan. To understand the real reasons one has to delve under the surface, something those of the leftish persuasion, like Steven Spielberg, are neither inclined nor typically equipped to do.
Nor was the real casus belli exactly the conflict between those who desired practically unchecked central power and those in favour of greater state rights, although by claiming this we’d be getting warmer. However, the war was brought about by something more fundamental than that: modernity’s craving to wipe out every vestige of the traditional order.
In fact, this was the first war in which modernity directly assaulted holdouts from Christendom. That explains the inordinate bloodshed, the Southerners’ readiness to stand to the last man and the Northerners’ unrestrained ‘scorched earth’ savagery throughout. For in such a war there can be no compromise.
It was to the South that Christendom holdouts had drifted. Perhaps they were attracted by an economy that revolved around agriculture. They also may have realised that materialistic modernity would reign supreme in the mercantile North. The odds, however, were stacked against the South, and the dying breath of fresh air was eventually drowned by the smoky stench of victorious modernity.
Preference for local rather than central government is the essential difference between traditional and modern politics. Unlike the ethos of Hellenic antiquity, Christianity imbued its adherents with inward, rather than outward, aspirations. That made them innately suspicious of politics, especially as practised by strangers in the faraway capital.
Translated to the American context of the time, that meant a preference not for federal but local governance, which was then described as state rights. Modernity, on the other hand, sought to destroy not only Christianity as the spiritual, social and moral focus of society, but also its every extension into other areas, especially politics.
This provides the necessary background to the cult of Abraham Lincoln that started in America, was then exported worldwide and will now be perpetuated by Spielberg’s film. This isn’t to deny that Lincoln had remarkable qualities, as most successful wartime leaders tend to possess. However, it was his intransigence that was largely responsible for the war, which takes some shine off Lincoln’s accomplishments.
Yes, his leadership of the Northern cause was firm and inspired, but this isn’t exactly praiseworthy for someone who doesn’t believe the cause was just. And unlike Spielberg, Lincoln himself knew that the war had little to do with slavery. ‘If that would preserve the Union, I’d agree not to liberate a single slave,’ he once said. Not exactly the Martin Luther King of his time then.
In the process of preserving the Union, Lincoln acted in ways that belie his iconic status. For example, he closed down 300 pro-Southern newspapers (and had their presses smashed), suppressed the writ of habeas corpus and, according to the Commissary General of Prisoners, had 13,535 Northern citizens accused of pro-Southern sympathies imprisoned without trial between February 1862 and April 1865.
Comparing his record with that of the hideous Mussolini, who only managed 1,624 political convictions in 20 years and yet is universally and justly reviled, one begins to see modern hagiography in a different light.
As I said earlier, one doesn’t necessarily expect a film to stroke one’s intellectual sensibilities. But then neither does one want them to be grossly offended. So I’ll steer clear of Lincoln. Give me a decent Western any day.