01/25/2013 09:45 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Will Lincoln Win?

Now that hoopla surrounding President Obama's inauguration is over, the real election campaign can begin. And the big question is the same as it was 150 years ago: Will Lincoln win?

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln has won enormous praise from reviewers, instantly catapulting it to the top tier of contenders for Academy Award honors, including Best Picture. The critics have hailed Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of Lincoln as uncanny, Sally Field's rendering of Lincoln's wife Mary as moving, and Tony Kushner's script as a triumph of historical dramatization. And Spielberg, reviewers rave, is at the top of his directing form.

But even the adoring critics have mostly missed what makes Lincoln a film of surpassing power and significance. Make no mistake: Lincoln is not just a superb movie -- it is a monument in American cultural history.

For more than a century, American culture has been polluted by outrageous and pernicious portrayals of the Civil War that apologized for the Confederacy and, by extension, for slavery. A few exceptionally popular books and movies have played a large part in sustaining, sometimes decades after they first appeared, what historians now call the myth of the Lost Cause -- vaunting the slaveholding South as an idyll of gallant white Southrons and happy-go-lucky slaves, heavy with the scent of blooming magnolia.

Gone with the Wind, the book and the movie, is the most familiar work in the Lost Cause canon, but the most influential, artistically as well as historically, has been D.W. Griffith's cinematic masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon's bestseller, The Clansman. Released in 1915, The Birth of a Nation brilliantly depicts a power-mad and merciless North vanquishing a gallant Old South. Lincoln, a significant figure in the middle of the film, appears bizarrely as a Southern sympathizer, whose murder paved the way for all of the supposed horrors visited upon the defeated Confederacy by evil carpetbaggers, scalawags and Radical Republicans. The Birth of a Nation ends with the thrilling rescue by the Ku Klux Klan of a white maiden from the clutches of a black rapist.

The mythology incarnated in Griffith's epic film is only now regarded by historians as racist pro-Confederate propaganda. Yet in American popular and commercial culture -- and not simply in the Stars-and-Bars-waving neo-Confederate precincts of the Deep South -- the reactionary view has persisted, coloring works such as Ronald Maxwell's execrable pro-rebel film Gods and Generals, which appeared in 2003. And that tilt helps explain why (according to a poll last year by the Pew Research Center) many more Americans believe the twisted Lost Cause myth that the Civil War was about preserving states' rights rather than about slavery.

Not every important Civil War film drama has fit this description, of course. Ken Burns's popular PBS series The Civil War, a documentary, though often cloyingly sentimental, was also informative, more even-handed, and direct on the subject of slavery. Edward Zwick's Glory, about the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Regiment departed even more sharply from the old pro-Confederate conventions, but was more a drama about black heroism and civil rights than about issues of slavery and secession. Otherwise, no film-maker with talent approaching Griffith's has attempted directly to discredit the still influential mythology of The Birth of a Nation and the entire Lost Cause romance with a grand cinematic counterstatement.

Until now, that is. Spielberg and Kushner have done so, completely and brilliantly.

Spielberg's wisest decision was to focus tightly on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, as it allows the exploration of how Lincoln deployed his most consequential gifts as a politician. It also gives him the opportunity to dramatize how, in fighting what they called the "Slave Power," Lincoln and the Republicans had to contend not just with the Confederacy but with its ferociously racist northern Democratic sympathizers.

Time and again, the film refutes the proposition, advanced by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in rebuttal to Lincoln, that states' rights and not slavery was the primary issue that led to secession and war. Anti-slavery from the start, Lincoln and his party had had to move tortuously to shore up the Union cause before Lincoln released his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. But the proclamation was formally a military measure, and so (a point that Day-Lewis's Lincoln makes sharply and concisely), the Thirteenth Amendment was essential. To the Confederate officials in the film, as in history, the amendment strikes to the core of what they wanted to preserve -- not states' rights but slavery.

Although devoted chiefly to its title character, Lincoln also brings to life the pragmatic radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who (in a bravura performance by Tommy Lee Jones) indulges, like Lincoln, in political gamesmanship. And this brings us back to D.W. Griffith.

One of The Birth of a Nation's two arch-villains is Congressman Austin Stoneman, a vain, arrogant, vengeful man who leads the way in subjecting the white South to licentious Negro rule. Stoneman's physical appearance and his limp leave little doubt that Griffith based Stoneman on Thaddeus Stevens. But the Thaddeus Stevens of Spielberg and Kushner, a fascinating cagey radical, turns Lincoln into an overt repudiation of The Birth of a Nation.

For almost exactly a hundred years, beginning with Griffith's masterful film, Hollywood has been complicit -- no, salient -- in promoting pro-Confederate falsehoods about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Now Spielberg and Kushner and everyone involved in Lincoln have at last declared, "Enough!" They set out to make a film about Abraham Lincoln, but what they produced ought to remove, once and for all, the lingering stain of the Lost Cause mythology, at least in respectable cinema. And it ought to serve as a second Lincoln Memorial, the one in which the hero is not chiseled out of stone.

This article is adapted from "The Lost Cause and the Won Cause," in the New Republic, December 29, 2012.