I spent a night in the pub playing skittles recently with The Lawmen of Bristol for a radio documentary. They are Wild West enthusiasts, who transport around their home-made saloon town and re-enact historical gunfights for charity. Each has a historical character they research carefully and inhabit. Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Black Jack, Annie Oakley and, my favourite, German Pete (he’s a teacher from Berlin in real life). They do hangings too, as long as there are no small children around. They’re particularly proud to have recently won a competition for best gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, itself.
Ask them what their favourite Westerns are and they almost unanimously name the more recent: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Kevin Costner’s Open Range, Kurt Russell’s Tombstone. Why? Because they look historically “authentic”.
That’s fair enough for historical reconstruction societies, but I had this nagging feeling of déjà vu all the way through the 150 minutes of Lincoln. While I greatly admired Daniel Day Lewis’ incarnation, (it won a BAFTA last night) it reminded me of seeing a robot version of Lincoln stand and speak in the Hall of Presidents on a childhood holiday to Disney World. A spectacle only. On film something was lacking in the script.
Walt himself had been fascinated by Abe since elementary school and Lincoln was the first audio animatronic figure he created. “Great Moments With Mr Lincoln” debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair before being moved to his California themepark. When Disney World in Florida opened in 1971 Lincoln took the biggest role among all the nodding Commander-in-Chief robots in the Hall of Presidents.
Walt was only doing what an earlier carnival huckster had done; monetizing our fascination with the first celebrity president.
A New York businessman called A.W. Dennett bought the Lincoln farm site in Kentucky 1894, nearly 30 years after the original log cabin where he was born had been dismantled. But he made another one and made money touring it. Lincoln’s birthplace is now a national memorial park. You can walk around what they carefully call the “symbolic” one room log cabin. The whole thing is fake, and yet, as I found when I visited, it has real power. It symbolizes our desire to touch his remarkable life, totemic of the American dream: From dire poverty to the greatest US President ever.
Thanks to the power of his speeches and the abolition of slavery Lincoln seems to belong to the modern world. He crops up in time travel and fantasy fiction all the time, from classic Star Trek to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure even most recently as a teen axe-wielding vampire hunter, because we feel he’s one of us. And Spielberg’s film is a great immersive ride.
We glimpse a bloody battle fought in thick grey mud and amputated limbs. The dim, smoke tainted Victorian interiors transport us, into that time, where political deals are made West Wing-style, or domestic secrets lurk behind the heavy oak doors and dark velvet curtains: the death of a young son; the white politician who lives as man and wife with his black housekeeper. However the most revelatory moments of the film are not the personal. They are in the telegraph room where the mass shelling of a Confederate port reveals a scale of mechanized death that anticipates the World Wars.
But too often the film retreats to Disney tableaux. Lincoln in death is the climax of the ride. A lamp lights those craggy cheekbones in profile – his friends standing around in somber grief. Except our seats don’t move past it on a conveyor belt to the exit.
So while Spielberg addressed Day Lewis on set as Mr President, Lincoln’s own furniture and fireplace was carefully reproduced, and Tony Kushner’s dialogue for him was painstakingly researched and sourced, writer Allison Samuels articulated on the Daily Beast website the wider concern of the film “notably completely omitting the role of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and other black leaders during that time”.
Last month I wrote about the trope of the “magical Negro” in American movies. I had forgotten to mention the trope that crops up in Lincoln – the “grateful” one. Lincoln features noble servants, who smile tearfully down at him from public galleries or stand smiling beatifically at him on his porch in the rain. It reminded me of the Shiznit website that parodied The Help’s film poster last year as “White people solve racism. You’re welcome, black people”.
Lincoln in the end embodies the risk that when you focus on the authenticity of the “ride” you might miss a more important truth.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – on sale from street vendors across the UK
What Lincoln Gets Wrong about black leaders and the 13th Amendment (Daily Beast Dec 2012)
Abraham Lincoln in science fiction (Joe Sergei’s Cup of Geek) with original clips and comic strips
A Civil War professor reviews Lincoln (Daily Beast Nov 2012)
If 2013’s Oscar movie posters told the truth The Shiznit website