One comes away from Disney DreamWorks’ Lincoln wondering what temptations induced playwright Tony Kushner, the author of the heartbreaking, hilarious and deeply introspective Angels in America, to write the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s $50 million cinematic civics lesson.
A mélange of Ken Burns documentary, grifters’ caper, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Edward Albee psychodrama — with a redeeming dose of 1860s-style Modern Family—Spielberg’s Lincoln is not so much an exploration of history and character as it is a high production-value social-studies film illustrating how a bill becomes a law or, in this case, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Lincoln takes place from January to April of 1865. Except for a perfunctory battlefield scene and a graphic depiction of a gurney unloading a bloody pile of recently amputated limbs, the action occurs inside various governmental offices, congressional chambers and the White House, giving the film an oddly claustrophobic feel. The tension driving the film is between Lincoln’s conviction that the Constitution must be amended to ban slavery before the Confederacy’s surrender, and the countervailing political pressures to negotiate an immediate peace and sacrifice all chance of a 13th Amendment. Lincoln’s argument rests on the status of slaves not as people but as war contraband belonging to the victorious North. The amendment’s enactment, therefore, is depicted not as a triumph of morality but, as the result of clever lawyering, petty patronage and personal will.
The action centers on the governing elites, depicting Lincoln as the ultimate insider. Thus, if you are only going to see one Lincoln biopic this year, I heartily recommend instead Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which — after a brief theatrical run this summer—is now available on DVD. Its fantastical narrative is actually the more truthful in showing how revolutionary change gets accomplished through the militancy and mobilization of outsiders and the oppressed.
In the film, 9-year-old Abe witnesses his mother’s murder at the hands of a vampire slave trader when his father can’t pay a debt. Thereafter obsessed with vengeance, Abe comes under the tutelage of Henry Sturges, an immortal who knows how to hold a grudge. Initiated into vampirism against his will and repulsed by what he has become, Sturges seeks out human allies to perform the necessary wet work of vampire-slaying that he, as a vampire, is unable to complete — an art he painstakingly teaches the young rail splitter from Illinois.
When Sturges informs Abe about “one of God’s little tricks: Vampires cannot kill their own,” he is essentially pointing out the difference between reform and revolution. Vampirism can only be overthrown from the outside, not from within.
The film traces the evolution of Lincoln’s morality, from a single-minded fixation with personal vengeance to a broader transcendent vision of social justice. Of necessity this evolution involves eliminating not just his mother’s murderer, but the entire bloodsucking class of vampires, as well as the system of oppression off which they feed. With Sturges’ guidance, Abe comes to recognize vampirism as the perfect literal and metaphorical definition of slavery. In a pivotal entry in his journal, on May 4, 1831, a 22-year-old Lincoln writes:
Not long after the first ships landed in this New World, I believe that vampires reached a tacit understanding with slave owners. I believe that this nation holds some special attraction for them because here, in America, they can feed on human blood without fear of discovery or reprisal.
The slave trade established an economic and moral system that rested on sucking the life’s blood from an entire race of human beings in order to maintain a hierarchical social order. That social order became devoted almost single-mindedly to preserving its sordid self. Fittingly, in a key scene, Adam, King of the Vampires, makes a deal with Jefferson Davis to preserve the supply chain of enslaved peoples’ blood by agreeing to provide the South “as many of my kind as you will need” to replenish the ranks of the Confederate army, which accounts for the heavy casualties visited on the Union troops during the first day at Gettysburg.
At one point, Lincoln remarks, “History remembers the battle, but forgets the blood,” an oversight the film’s director, Timur Bekmambetov, succeeds in not repeating. It is the memory of the blood and the implications of that memory that differentiates Bekmambetov’s Lincoln from Spielberg’s.
Spielberg whitewashes Lincoln much as Martin Luther King Jr. has been whitewashed by our political culture, which emphasizes healing and unity at the expense of truth and justice. In that regard, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a politically courageous film that spares audiences the bullshit moral relativism you often get when American historians deal with slaveholders like Robert E. Lee, and their supposed inner conflicts over states’ rights versus actual human beings’ rights.
Which is why I recommend Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for your viewing pleasure and factual enlightenment. When deciding between these two films, choose the one that swings a bright silver ax into our nation’s exculpatory mythologies, not the one that perpetuates them.
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