Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

BLOG #49, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
STEVEN SPIELBERG’S LINCOLN
December 5, 2012

Everywhere I go, people, knowing I wrote Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage (Howard/Simon & Schuster, 2008), ask me if I’ve seen the new film. Finally, I’m able to answer film-related questions. Connie and I took our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons to see a Maryland, Sunday matinee. The theater was packed. And, just as was true with our son’s earlier experience in Florida, there was enthusiastic applause at the end.

I’ve been burned so many times by attending so-called biographical films that I was a bit apprehensive about this one; but not too much, for Doris Kearns Goodwin was staking her reputation on the film’s authenticity. And of all the sixty-some Lincoln biographies I studied before writing my own, her Team of Rivals outshown them all. What prodigious scholarship!

In short, Goodwin did not let me down. Neither did Spielberg, Sally Field, Daniel Day Lewis, or the rest of the cast. Spielberg was wise to zero in on such a short time-period that suspense and character-revelation and development was possible. Lewis was magnificent as Lincoln. Somehow, in this film, he became Lincoln. It was almost eerie to me: after a lifetime of studying Lincoln and collecting stories written about Lincoln, Lincoln with all his complexities (so complex that even his closest associates were never able to pigeon-hole him or predict what he might or might not do), I felt that somehow Lewis had managed to get inside his skin. An incredible feat given the fact that there are over 16,000 books about Lincoln to draw from.

Most certainly, Goodwin was the mentor-in-chief who helped create this near miraculous resurrection of abstract history into flesh and blood reality. But mentoring alone is powerless to create living prototypes; it also takes a mentoree with rare gifts of assimilation.

And never was a film such as this one needed more, for, as famed historian and biographer David McCullouch put it, several weeks ago, “America is facing an unprecedented crisis of historical literacy.” Neither our schools nor our homes are passing on to children, youth, and young adults an even elementary understanding and knowledge of our past. And given that books, newspapers, and magazines are being beaten back, back, and back by electronic sound bytes, democracy itself is at risk.

Sally Field excelled in her portrayal of the tormented Mary Todd Lincoln, who had lost two of her sons to disease. Antibiotics were unknown back then and doctors and midwives, with unwashed hands, carried death from one patient to the next. Had it not been for her husband, she would have completely crumbled against the forces determined to bring her down. When she lost him too, it is little wonder that she all but broke.

To us today, who have just endured a brutal no-hands-barred election campaign decided by incredibly vicious attack ads created for and by anonymous sources accountable to no one, we certainly cannot claim clean hands. Lincoln had made a solemn vow to God that he would do his utmost to remove the quarter-millennium-old curse of slavery. A superb tactician, he accomplished what no other known man could have: winning the war in spite of 750,000 casualties [the latest figure]) when so many were willing to settle at any price, and then, by marshaling so completely the war-time powers of the Presidency, along with being a shrewd judge of human nature, almost unbelievably, orchestrating the passing of the Sixteenth Amendment.

Not surprisingly, given today’s secularism, Lincoln’s deep relationship with God was shortchanged in the film. Without doubt, he was America’s most spiritual president, who was convicted that, behind the scenes, God called the shots. He could only do his utmost, then leave the rest to God. Scholars today appear to share an agenda that calls for stripping from Lincoln the spirituality that made him what he was, and give him the strength to stand–alone–against forces that would have brought down a hundred lesser men. His clear-eyed vision, coupled with moment-by-moment dependency on God, carried him on to Ford’s Theatre, the safe harbor reached at last. Wisely, Spielberg concludes the film with the high tide of passing the Sixteenth Amendment rather than the assassin’s bullet that, ironically, insured Lincoln’s immortality, saving him from the horrors of Deconstruction that followed.

In spite of its flaws, which are amazingly few, the film ends up about as historically accurate as any such film I’ve ever seen—an amazing feat!

Advertisements

IOWA CAUCUS – REBIRTH? OR ABERRATION?

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

IOWA CAUCUS

REBIRTH?  OR ABERRATION?

 

Dec. 21, 2011

 

As a historian of ideas, I’ve always been fascinated by sudden turning points.  Case in point: During the last year, we’ve seen, one after another, the emergence of democracy all across North Africa and the Middle East.  Even totalitarian Russia now feels the open scorn of its people.

 

In the daily news, we’ve seen Europe reeling from one economic seismic shock after another.  For decades, Europe has been a poster child for a template that appeared to have staying power: one currency for all, fiscal stability, no closed borders between nations, cradle to the grave welfare for all, more than generous retirement benefits, vacations galore (it often seemed that the population of the entire continent could be found on beaches every August), and millions of tourists flooding the continent the icing on the cake.  But no longer: Europe’s template has cracked right down the middle.  And nobody knows how to fix it.

 

In the U.S., things are little better than in Europe.  Only the fact that the spotlight of the world has been fixated on Europe rather than us has enabled us to escape the world’s scrutiny.  But that cannot long last.  Our status quo is unrelentingly grim.

But in Iowa, on the eve of the last debate before the Caucus, something electric happened.  Gingrich may well be right in declaring that we haven’t had anything this substantive in our political arena since the Lincoln-Douglas debates a century and a half ago.  But first, I must admit that, though I’m a registered Republican, I’m a centrist and vote accordingly.  Like most Americans, in recent years I’ve been disillusioned time after time by the G.O.P.  All too often it has seemed as if our Republican leaders were determined to out-dumb each other.  “”Naive’ and “uninformed” way too inadequate to describe their condition, their evident ignorance of current events and national and world history off the charts of probability; their voting out of offices the informed and intelligent moderates who would work together for the good of the country –  instead they elected, all too often, individuals so close-minded they’d stampede the nation off a cliff rather than work together.

However, on Dec. 15, there took place a rational debate between presidential candidates who, for once, did themselves and their party proud.  Same for the moderators.  Such an impact did this make on me that I was unable to sleep afterwards; in fact, at 2:30 a.m. next morning, I got up and wrote until 5:00 a.m.

 

But even now, I find myself incapable of really making sense of all I heard that night.  I’m mightily muddled.  But even so, permit me to muddle through these swirling unconnected thoughts.  Stream-of-consciousness disorganized because I can’t yet make sense of them:

 

It’s like, on the eve of Dec. 15, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back.  The candidates and the concerned audience fed on each other, together rising to unexpected heights:

 

Rather than merely ramble on unstructured I am bullet-pointing the concerns that generated that eve of Dec. 15:

 

 

  • Government gridlock
  • Out-of-control spending
  • Massive unemployment – worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, for third year in a row
  • Epidemic of bankruptcies
  • Millions of lives shattered by foreclosures and being evicted from their homes.  Almost half owe more than they could get by selling their homes.
  • The middle class shrinking so dramatically that the gap between rich and poor has yawned so wide we risk revolution from the disenfranchised.
  • The collusion between government and Big Banks
  • The breakdown of our protective agencies
  • The federal out-of-control spending taking a terrible toll on the finances, education, social programs, infrastructure, and public services of individual states, resulting in a devastating implosion
  • The revolving door between government and lobbyists
  • Government office being restricted to self-made millionaires or billionaires or those who sell their souls to special interest groups
  • The decline of a literate electorate.  With elections decided by electronic sound-bytes rather than thoughtful reading of newspapers, magazines, and books
  • The political campaigns degenerating into attack ads and character assassination orchestrated by unknown sources or people
  • Vote fraud
  • The staggering economic toll taken by multiple foreign wars
  • Retirees losing all they’d saved for their retirement years
  • Graduates unable to find well-paying jobs
  • Manufacturing continuing to be sent overseas
  • The perceived failure of so many of our schools and colleges
  • The courts becoming ever more hostile to all public expressions of religion or belief in a higher power
  • Marriage discredited by secular forces; so much so that the nuclear family (man, woman, child) is for the first time ceasing to be the norm.  Out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing to such an extent that it is said that one-third of all American children are effectively being raised by their grandparents.  Sexuality today trumps lifetime commitment.
  • A media apparently determined to so ridicule religion and those who attempt to live by biblical principles that they will discredit those people into irrelevancy.
  • Widespread attempts to strip religious holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving of their spiritual significance
  • The replacement of time-honored concepts of Good and Evil and Right and Wrong with psychiatric terminology divorced from a Higher Power.  Result: lying under oath no longer means much to all those who don’t believe in God (however they may perceive Him).  Neither do cheating or stealing seem wrong.
  • Deconstruction of history strips our erstwhile national heroes of whatever noble qualities were once attributed to them.
  • Thoughtful parents so terrified of societal forces hostile to their children (bullying, hazing, pedophilia, rape, substance abuse, sexuality without commitment, ridicule of their beliefs, etc.) that they are pulling their children out of public schools and homeschooling them

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

All these variables swirled around during the memorable two-hour debate (meaningful because moderators asked searching thoughtful questions of the candidates, zeroing in on issues where candidates were perceived to be on thin ice).  Furthermore, moderators permitted candidates to respond and defend their actions and words.  Unlike so many meaningless public debates of recent years, where no real substantive dialogue took place, this debate was very real—indeed it was so gripping I felt it to be high drama!

 

Significantly, the Dec. 15 growing consensus appeared to be: our template is broken beyond repair; it almost has to be rebuilt from the ground up, starting with cutting politicians’ salaries in half, moving back to citizen governance with half-time government service and half time work in the real world.  Frugality once again.  Pay as we go: don’t spend any money we don’t have.  Create jobs rather than parasitically siphoning off the life blood of those who are working hard to create a newer and better society.  Bring God back—, more to the point: bring us back to God.  Respect right to life.  Bring back a society based on the twin bedrocks of God and country.

 

Frankly, I’m less than optimistic that what I felt in the auditorium on Dec. 15 will blossom into a much needed cultural revolution.  For both parties—not just the G.O.P.

 

However, in the darkest days of history, God has summoned great men and women to selfless service—Moses, Daniel, St. Paul, St. Nicholas, St. Francis, Luther, the Wesleys, Washington, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Churchill, Mother Teresa.

 

Why could not God do it again?