MyAmericanFuture

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

January 13, 2013: Lincoln Redux

I’ve already written in this space about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln; but I hadn’t seen the movie at that point, and now I have. So it felt appropriate to revisit that post and some of its questions, and in particular to highlight three things that stood out to me about the movie and American history:
1)      As I wrote in that prior post, the most common critique of the film, at least among scholars, has been the absence of active African American characters and choices. While I agree with the film’s defenders that to some degree these critics are advocating for an entirely different film than this one, I would nonetheless agree with the critics on this note: one of the film’s powerful and intimate moments is a conversation between Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave turned Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress; and it would have been incredibly easy, and entirely appropriate, for screenwriter Tony Kushner to add a sentence or two to that conversation about Keckley’s social activism among African Americans in Washington and beyond. Not sure why he didn’t, and it is an unfortunate absence.
2)      On the other hand, the conversation does exemplify what I would call the film’s best and most historical moments—not the big details nor the sweeping monologues, important as both are to the unfolding plot and story; but small and intimate moments in which characters, and particularly of course Lincoln, make seemingly minor choices or decisions that have significant impacts on their lives and our shared histories. While there are of course complications and downsides to the “Great Man” theory of history, it’s nonetheless true that a figure like Lincoln profoundly influenced our national arc—and I think it’s compelling and accurate to present that influence through small but potent moments and choices.
3)      But on the other other hand, perhaps my single favorite moment in the film is an overtly and self-consciously big one. I won’t spoil all the details of it, but it involves one of my American heroes and the film’s most fun and compelling character, Thaddeus Stevens (as played to the hilt by the great Tommy Lee Jones; minor spoilers in that clip). Yet despite the overarching importance and themes in this moment, what makes it truly great is the way Jones plays the gradual and yet striking and crucial evolution of Stevens’ ideas and words in this sequence; and how, along the way, he rediscovers one of the most central American ideals: the paramount importance of equality under the law.
All in all, despite its inevitable limitations, I’d call it one of the best American historical films I’ve seen. Well worth your time, and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have already seen it or when you do.
Next series starts tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on the film? On other historical films?

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