Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" is pretty thin as a history lesson. The characters throw lots of political-historical facts at us. But the dialogue is so fragmentary and rapid fire that it can hardly be considered a thoughtful, much less thought-provoking, treatment of the issues in question.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner never really take on the big question raised by serious Lincoln scholars: Was he following an unwavering moral vision to abolish slavery? Or was he using the slavery issue to win the war and save the Union? Though the film alludes to this question, it never confronts it directly.
The longer I watched the movie, the more the historian in me was frustrated. But 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, part way through the movie, it struck me that I was missing the point: It was all simply superb cinema. If I let myself, I could be sucked into the story and carried along by it. 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, the Hollywood "dream factory" at its best. How appropriate that we meet the 13th amendment first in a dream.
Spielberg and Kushner weren't trying to teach us history. They were (as the New Yorker's film critic, David Denby, puts it so well) "march[ing] straight down the center of national memory." Since national memory is mythic and need not be checked by facts, the path down its center always appears to be guided by an unwavering, crystal clear moral vision. It always runs straight and true through the twists and turns of messy democracy. Spielberg, our greatest living mythmaker, 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.")
Of course it's not just Spielberg. Many scholars believe that Americans are more likely than most other people to see their national history as a morality tale. Some claim that's 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 13th 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 3,000 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.
Ira Chernus blogs at MythicAmerica.us.