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I don’t mean to disparage Spielberg’s storytelling gifts, only to suggest that they often depend on a ruthless catering to what we already think we know about a given subject. Significantly, his rationale for shooting “Schindler’s List” in black and white —“Virtually everything I’ve seen on the Holocaust is in black and white” — presupposes a determination to honor our unconsidered prejudices. So when it comes to Abe Lincoln, this necessarily means not stepping too far away from the audio-animatronic version in Disneyland, which is arguably what many of us already have to start with, crossed a bit with the equally archetypal Uncle Sam. Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln and who definitely knows how to hold the screen, certainly does a lot with this familiar tent-pole image; how far he’s allowed to transcend it is another matter. At best, he carries the folksy side of Honest Abe, periodically evoking Will Rogers, about as far as it can be taken — even into the realm of a historically authenticated outhouse joke that Lincoln liked to tell, about a portrait of George Washington hung inside a privy.
But whenever Day-Lewis is required to take on other Lincolns, such as the beleaguered family man, the role seems to split into separate characters rather than deepen into a single multilayered one. Spielberg’s daring enough to show us a Lincoln who can shout at his wife, Mary (Sally Field), and slap his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and one who occasionally drives even his devotees batty with his habitual anecdotes. Spielberg also makes the startling and interesting decision to exclude Lincoln’s assassination from his story (while including his death). But he can’t give us a Lincoln either stripped of myth or enhanced by further myths.
The problem is the ideological baggage Lincoln carries and its competing agendas. He has been appropriated by both the left and right over nearly a century and a half, for idealistic as well as cynical purposes. It isn’t accidental that this film was set to be released only after the presidential election. The relation of Lincoln’s Civil War to the one currently plaguing this country — less geographically based and more culturally oriented, but no less divisive — is, while far from simple, hardly irrelevant.
Prior to the 2008 presidential election, comparisons made between Lincoln and Barack Obama — humble origins, skinny frame, the desire to preserve the Union — were somewhat harder to dismiss. Now, the sharper distinctions, such as Obama’s less developed social skills, and reflexes that are less Machiavellian, tend to make such comparisons harder to float, but this doesn’t mean that they’re no longer pertinent. Indeed, one telling indication of how much our myths can change over a short period is how Obama started off as a political figure who suggested racial and international harmony (and the abolition of slavery associated with Lincoln), the reason being that he had a white American mother and a black African father, and then became a political figure identified in the United States as black (half-accurate) and/or Muslim (totally inaccurate). Both myths are questionable, but they’re hardly mythical or dubious in the same fashion.