Monday, December 13, 2010

Spielberg On Lincoln

From Big Which Abraham Lincoln Will Steven Spielberg Give Us?
by Dave Dougherty

Larry Schweikart contributed to this article.

Given Hollywood’s recent love affair with remakes and sequels, new topics and stories should command prime attention. Strangely enough, however, while there have been two updated treatments of the Alamo since John Wayne tackled the subject, and while there have been new approaches taken to important World War II battles such as Iwo Jima and Normandy, Hollywood has by and large shied away from biographies. (The recent John Adams series was a welcome exception). So it is that one of the two or three most important Americans ever, Abraham Lincoln, has received almost no attention from filmmakers over the past decades.
Perhaps that is about to change with Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming movie on Abraham Lincoln, based largely on author Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Considered by many modern journalists as one of the best books today on Lincoln and his presidency, it is no great surprise that Team of Rivals should be used as the starting point for the script by Tony Kushner. But whose Lincoln will we see? Will it be Goodwin’s political genius who managed a fractious cabinet that included three individuals, each of whom thought that they had a better claim to the Presidency than Lincoln? Or will it be a liberal reconstruction, such as “Che” or “W.” or Kushner and Spielberg’s own “Munich”?

Goodwin’s approach focuses on the formative years of three of Lincoln’s cabinet members, William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates, and spends a significant amount of time developing their characters. Using diaries and personal papers of Lincoln’s cabinet members, their families, and associates, common in modern social history, Goodwin draws a picture of the times and likely motivations on the central figures. That’s not to say that Goodwin’s mammoth work (916 pages in paperback) is without its own issues: her vast number of end notes from primary and secondary sources support a narrative that, at times, seems to hurtle from quotation to quotation. Perhaps, though, this is what has attracted Spielberg and Kushner to this particular version of “Honest Abe,” for it provides a perfect basis for a story from a political and seductive point of view.

Goodwin is sympathetic to Lincoln, accurately describing his melancholy temperament (while rejecting recent poppycock psycho-history and gay overtones), and labors mightily, but not altogether successfully, to avoid a presentist view. Her Lincoln was very ambitious, but wise, and Goodwin notes that rarely was the cabinet’s advice better than Lincoln’s own.

Considering that Lincoln is one of the most studied and written about individuals in American history, it is almost impossible at this late date for an author to provide new information or a fresh analysis, which makes the fact that he hasn’t had a major biographical film treatment in over 40 years surprising. Kearns, alert to the new scholarship, adapts her Lincoln to a modern audience, him and those around him. The role of death – of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives and sweethearts — at early ages in shaping the attitudes, outlooks and religion of the participants in Lincoln’s time is stressed by the author, yet often nearly incomprehensible to modern readers.

Although Lincoln’s political genius was well in evidence during his campaign to win the Republican nomination for President, it was the war that truly displayed his talents. More than any other president in American history, Lincoln was confronted with challenges in balancing competing and opposing personalities and forces in the loyal states that at all times threatened to destroy the Union. He desperately needed support from Democrats to successfully prosecute the war and was faced with holding Republican radicals in check while not appearing to repudiate abolitionist sentiments. Hence his suppression of emancipation edicts by his generals before he deemed the time was ripe, and even then his Emancipation Proclamation contained limitations that angered substantial forces in his own party.

As Commander-in-Chief, he labored to manage inept generals and politically connected battlefield commanders like George McClellan. Like Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Lincoln faced a powerful peace movement during the war, and without the victories at Atlanta, the Shenandoah Valley and in Mobile Bay, he probably would have been defeated in 1864. Had McClellan won, it is very possible he would have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The author argues that no other person in American politics—and certainly not any of Lincoln’s “team of rivals”—could have saved the Union. Only George Washington, who himself lacks a stellar screen treatment, towers over Lincoln as a politician, war leader, and patriot.

So what will Spielberg do with the tall Kentuckian? If the screenplay remains faithful to Team of Rivals, and particularly to the celebration of Lincoln’s genius, then he will have served America and history. But if he focuses on Lincoln’s foibles—his bouts of depression, his unsure marriage to Mary Todd, his imprecise vision of how freedom for African-Americans would work out—he risks adding to the garbage heap that passes for historical understanding in the culture today.

Lincoln, and the country, deserve the best. Make “John Adams,” Mr. Spielberg. You certainly have the talent.

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