Hendrik Hertzberg: “Lincoln” v. Lincoln





Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor and staff writer for The New Yorker. His work is collected in two books, “Politics” and “Obámanos.”

...The great bulk of the movie industry’s evocations of the American past have been Westerns—that is, escapist adventure stories set in a vague time more or less identifiable as the eighteen-seventies or eighties, a vague semi-desert or mountainous region somewhere between the Mississippi and the Rockies, and a vague economy based on cattle-raising, saloon-keeping, and banditry. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But Westerns lack context—political, social, historical. There’s conflict aplenty, but it’s between cowboys and Indians, cattlemen and sheepherders, outlaws and sheriffs, not between armies or nations or ideas. Even when the conflict is a little broader—say, between doomed nomads on horseback on one side (be they aboriginal tribesmen or Eastwood-style individualist paladins) and, on the other side, agents of encroaching modernization (like railroad barons or the U.S. Cavalry)—the stakes are fuzzy, a lot less than world-historical.

American history is so much richer, so much bigger than those wide-open, mostly empty spaces! Yet there are no great movies, as far as I know, about, for example, the American Revolution, and not even many lousy ones. (Ismael Merchant and James Ivory’s 1995 “Jefferson in Paris” isn’t bad, though it’s hobbled by the casting of the rough, gruff Nick Nolte as the delicate, cultivated Thomas Jefferson.) The grandest, greatest drama of American history, of course, is the Civil War, and it has fared a little better. “Gone With The Wind” (1939) may be a whitewash, but it is anything but a bad movie. Edward Zwick’s “Glory” (1989) is glorious. Beyond those, though, not much.

The grandest, greatest protagonist in that grandest, greatest drama is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has been portrayed in twenty-five or so movies, beginning with D. W. Griffith’s brilliant atrocity “Birth of a Nation” (1915). But it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that until Spielberg came along no one had even tried to do it with any degree of seriousness within living memory. John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), starring Henry Fonda, and “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940), with Raymond Massey in the title role and a script by the playwright (and F.D.R. speechwriter) Robert E. Sherwood, were brought forth more than three score and some-odd years ago. And neither of those dared to show Lincoln as President.

I was, therefore, delighted to learn, more than a decade ago, that Spielberg had decided to take up the challenge. With the possible exception of the still unmade adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” I’ve never looked forward to a movie more eagerly, more hopefully, and for such a long time as I looked forward to “Lincoln.”...



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