No need to go over the plot in detail. Lincoln wants to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery before the war ends, and he has to fight hard for the votes in the House. Ably acted by most in the cast, script predictably politically correct and revisionist in inflection if not in tone. See it, but expect the same old same old, historically.
If all I ever learned about America and American history came from Steven Spielberg films, here’s what I would know:
Historical Figures Regularly Gave Each Other Backstory–Suppose you are Abraham Lincoln and your Secretary of State comes into the room to talk to you about whatever political machinations you are involved in at the moment. He won’t just say: “The Secretary of War disapproves of what you’re doing.” No. He’ll say: “Edwin M. Stanton disapproves of what you are doing. You don’t want to upset your Secretary of War, do you?!” This is, of course, to fill the audience in as to who is saying what, because Spielberg’s films attract the sort of Americans who know their own history, on average, about as well as they know what the weather is doing on Mars.
Black People Have Always Been Stoic and Noble–In Spielberg’s cinematic universe (hereafter “cineverse”), one thing black people excel at is repressing their emotions just to the point where the White Racist Idiots around them (see below) can’t see how hard black people have to bite back on their outrage at whatever racist idiocy is going on while simultaneously allowing the audience to see the tears welling up in their sad eyes. Also, black people walk around just waiting for the opportunity to give long soliloquies on injustice while the White Racist Idiots surrounding them at all times respectfully wait for them to finish speaking.
White People are Racist Idiots–Whether they are night-riding terrorists in the Ku Klux Klan or janitors doing a bad job cleaning out the garbage can in a black teacher’s classroom, white people are propelled by racism, and they are so socially inept as to openly show it with some regularity. This is especially true of southern white rednecks, who chew tobacco and have dirty, greasy faces. (Here I refer to the scene in “Lincoln” in which a greasy-looking Congressman votes “no” on the 13th Amendment in a vaguely southern accent and, then, immediately, spits a giant gob of tobacco juice, apparently on the floor).
In fact, in the very FIRST scene of Spielberg’s latest deposit (right after black Union soldiers are depicted orgiastically slaughtering white Confederates), even the deified Abraham Lincoln gets his comeuppance at the hands of a black soldier who comes close to reading him the fairness riot act regarding pay inequality, until he is drowned out by a fellow black soldier being very Stoic and Noble. Lincoln is so blind, being white, that he doesn’t even seem to worry that much about pay inequality for blacks! It isn’t clear if the rest of his executive record clears him of idiot status in Spielberg’s mind, but it’s pretty clear that Spielberg wants to lay some groundwork about historical guilt as even Lincoln doesn’t get off scot-free. In Spielberg’s cineverse, a white character has to be pretty special to escape the implicaton that he isn’t a White Racist Idiot.
Whites are Vacillating Cowards, Too–Sure, they talk tough, but they tremble in fear in the face of black Stoic Nobility. Or, if not completely cowardly, they sure are niggardly about simply helping a brother out!
For instance, suppose it’s 1865 and you’re a Kentucky Congressman being called upon to vote for a constitutional amendment to make slavery illegal. Lo and behold, you show some reluctance. Is any historical perspective called for in Spielberg’s cineverse? Any exploration of what such a sweeping change would mean for said Congressman’s economy that had, for good or ill, depended on slave labor with no constitutional problem until the relatively quick and recent growth of abolitionism? No, you White Racist Idiot! Slavery is bad and anyone who ever didn’t know that or ever argued otherwise is a Vacillating Coward.
Or. take the case of Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Here’s a guy who’s living in hot sin with a high-yellow mixed race chick for years and even HE can be turned into a Vacillating Coward by politics (he publicly moderated his stance on racial equality to appease the White Racist Idiots who read the papers back then). If it wasn’t for him going to bed with said “black” girlfriend in the final scenes (in real life, she was his quarter-black common-law wife), the viewer would have to conclude that even Stevens himself was a White Racist Idiot. Spielberg seems to give him a bit of a pass, though. Probably because, in real life, Stevens was the engineer of some of Reconstruction’s most punishing, harshest anti-white measures. And, of course, because he slept with black women.
For Good Measure, White Men Are Guilty of Other Stuff, Too–There’s a scene in which even the abolitionist men rise in protest at the suggestion that they eventually want to see America on the slippery slope to women being enfranchised to vote. They are outraged at the suggestion! Spielberg is making a good point, here. “See? Even the liberal white men back then were SEXIST IDIOTS! Jeez! What a mess those jerks were!”
So, as with Amistad, Spielberg is teaching us what we need to know about America’s past: it was unfair and Whitey is to blame. Even when he was trying to “fix” it.