Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln, presents the drama in the House of Representatives surrounding passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. abolishing slavery. It gives the viewer Lincoln’s slant on slavery and explains why he was determined to amend the Constitution, rather than leaving his Emancipation Proclamation as the only barrier to reinstating slavery in the United States. The movie shows the maneuvering behind the scenes and the fights on the floor of the House, all set against the backdrop of an ongoing, bloody civil war.
This is certainly an absorbing story and I’m glad I saw the film. Nevertheless, it left me disappointed, and the best way I can describe this disappointment is to compare Lincoln to the 1961 classic, Judgment at Nuremberg. That film also dealt with great evil and moral dilemmas. But it presented both sides of the question.
To watch Judgment is to sink slowly and horribly into the swamp of Nazi justice, where wrong was right and right was wrong, where villains argue plausibly that they had no choice and people who appear noble have feet of clay. The viewer ends up uneasy and slightly queasy, wondering how he would have acted in similar circumstances.
Lincoln would have been a more honest, and much more compelling, film had it shown in greater depth why so many opposed passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. There are a few hints that simple emancipation would not solve all problems, that people of color faced innumerable obstacles from a conservative society, in the North as well as the South.
But none of this is fleshed out. It is almost as if Spielberg downplayed the substance of the opposition to the Thirteenth Amendment for fear that some in the audience might find themselves agreeing with those arguments. But would it have been so bad for viewers to stumble out of the cinema asking themselves whether they would have risen to the challenge to do the right thing, had they been in the House of Representatives in January 1865?
In fact, all Spielberg did was to diminish our appreciation of Lincoln’s achievement. Spielberg presents himself as a daring filmmaker – I wish he had been so in this case.