Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > “Lincoln”: Jesus Christ! God Almighty! What a (Biblical) Movie!

Nov 25, 2012

“Lincoln”: Jesus Christ! God Almighty! What a (Biblical) Movie!


About three score and a couple of years ago my sister was a research librarian in Hollywood, working for an outfit that dug up information needed by moviemakers. One day she called me and said, “You’ve got a PhD in the history of Judaism. So what are the facts about the lost ark, the one that was in the Jerusalem Temple in biblical times?”  “There are no facts,” I quickly replied. “It’s all just legend. Why do you want to know, anyway?”

“Steven Spielberg is making a movie about the lost ark, and he wants us to get him the facts.” “A movie about the lost ark?”, I asked incredulously. “Is he crazy? Does he think anyone is going to pay money to see that?”

Obviously, I may know something about history but not much at all about the movies. I suppose that alone might disqualify me from making any comment on Spielberg’s latest epic, Lincoln.

But when America’s greatest living mythmaker takes on America’s most mythicized president, how can the author of a blog called MythicAmerica remain silent? If it’s not my obligation to say something, at least it’s an irresistible temptation.

What places Lincoln above all presidents in our national memory is his image as The Great Emancipator, a larger-than-life man led by a crystal clear and unwavering moral vision on the transcendent moral issue of American history. In mythic terms, the mere fact that America could produce such a leader is powerful evidence of a clear moral vision at the heart of America, a vision that all Americans can draw from and thus share in, at least vicariously. If that moral vision can be combined, in this one person, with skillful use of our democratic system to put the vision into practice, so much the better.

But recent historians have created at least a hint of a different myth, in which Lincoln is larger than life because he so skillfully manipulated the system in pursuit of some lesser goal -- saving the Union not for a greater moral purpose, but merely as an end in itself; or perhaps, even worse, merely being a winner for the sake of being a winner, in both war and politics.

I expected the film to explore this issue, to take a stand on it, to tell us what the Lincoln myth for our generation should be. Spielberg’s choice to focus on the Thirteenth Amendment seemed well suited to the task. The key scenes would be those in which Lincoln came to his decision about pressing for immediate passage. That would reveal just what kind of mythic figure the director (and screenwriter Tony Kushner) wanted us to see.

Watching the film, I quickly found myself frustrated because that question was sidestepped, or at best made rather secondary. Lincoln’s decision-making process had been concluded before the time frame of the film even began. We are introduced to his firm decision in the form of a dream.

My frustration was heightened by the rather wooden way the political-historical facts were discussed. The dialogue was so fragmentary and rapid fire that it could hardly be considered a thoughtful, much less thought-provoking, treatment of the issues in question. The historian in me couldn’t figure out quite what to make of it all.

Scenes of personal interaction -- among Lincoln, his wife, his sons, their servants, minor functionaries, and soldiers -- relieved the tension because they meant nothing as history. They were simply superb cinema, and I could indulge completely in enjoying them as such.

Then at a certain point it struck me that I was missing the point of the movie: It was all simply superb cinema. If I let myself, I could be sucked into the story and carried along by it, as I suspect most of the audience was (except the guy sitting next to my wife, who fell asleep). Once I allowed myself to suspend disbelief and treat what I called the political scenes on the same level as what I called the personal scenes, it was a truly glorious piece of theater, a spectacle from the Hollywood “dream factory” at its best. How appropriate that we meet the Thirteenth Amendment first in a dream.

The tension between historical fact and pure theater was reinforced right after the movie by two incidents. As the credits rolled, a woman sitting near me told a friend about a high school American history teacher who was giving his students extra credit for seeing the movie. Maybe he wanted them to think about how history is turned into mythic spectacle. But I doubt it. Since the filmmakers emphasized so strongly their debt to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the credits included thanks to so many other historians, there’s an understandably widespread (though unfortunate) view that this is a fine way to learn real history.

When I got home and glanced at my email, I found that a friend had sent out a piece by the New Yorker’s film critic, David Denby. His conclusion sums up the very ahistorical quality of the film. It’s strange to call a movie “momentous,” he says, because great movies typically suggest their larger meanings only through implication. But “Lincoln” is momentous because the message is so direct: “Spielberg and Kushner marched straight down the center of national memory ... and they got it right.”

What they “got right,” of course, was not the facts of history; no doubt they got plenty of those facts right, but that misses the point. What they “got right” was the path that leads down the center of national memory. Since national memory is mythic and need not be checked by facts, that path can always appear to aim at, and be guided by, America’s crystal clear and unwavering moral vision, so that it runs straight and true through the twists and turns of messy democracy.

Spielberg is obviously in love with this traditional story of America’s journey along the path of moral truth. (See Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and his video game, Medal of Honor.) Now his immense technical gifts have allowed him to create his most impressive pageant of America marching down that path, headed by its greatest leader, as interpreted by its greatest mythmaker.

Of course it’s not just Spielberg. Some scholars believe that Americans, as a people, are more likely than many others to see their history as a morality tale because so many Americans have taken the Bible as a sort of code book to decipher the meaning of our historical events.

David Denby raises this theory at the outset of his review, quoting Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon: Lincoln was “the noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ ... I believe that Lincoln was God’s chosen one.” Denby goes on to note that the popular image of Lincoln still includes “attributes both human and semi-divine ... which combine elements of the Old and New Testaments.”

As for the New, he might have noted the obvious: In the end, Lincoln is martyred for having cleansed his people of their sin. Denby also could have pointed to the sequence in which Lincoln reminds his son that the president is the all-powerful ruler (at least as far as the army is concerned), but then gives his son up to the risk of death in that army, where so many soldiers died to wash away the sins of the whole nation -- a sort of “God the son becomes God the father” sequence. Is it too much to add that the exquisite lighting of the film, especially in the interior shots, creates an aura of the holy spirit hovering over everything the great man says and does?

Denby offers only one Old Testament reference: the sequence in which Lincoln talks of his “awesome power,” and demands that his aides get the last two votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. “It’s Lincoln’s only moment of majesty in office ... Any thought of Jesus disappears. This is an Old Testament figure, wrathful and demanding.”

But there’s a deeper Old Testament dimension to the lead character, which Spielberg spotlighted by closing the film with a flashback to the second inaugural address: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Both the “offense” of slavery and “this mighty scourge of war” to punish that offense may be among those purposes. Yet “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"

The New Testament is a relevant prototype for a story about God’s martyred chosen one. But since the film is really about a nation’s memory, the Old Testament is the more relevant prototype. The Old is the story of a whole nation’s historical struggles with offense and punishment, embedded in a thick web of political complexities, but all guided by an omnipotent moral hand toward a transcendent goal.

It may be most rewarding to watch Lincoln as a biblical epic, ranked alongside films like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told as one of the best American films of that genre. Lincoln reminded me why so much of the Bible is such fine literature: Once we are grabbed and swept away by a great story, crafted by great storytellers, a careful analysis of the historical facts no longer seems so important any more, and certainly not nearly so interesting. 

After the last credits roll and the last reviews are read, though, we are left wondering what it means for a nation to continue remembering its own history as if that history were a Bible story.

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