Five Thoughts on Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012)

I’m not really trained to make any sort of insight about film or filmic technique. I believe I can say something, however, about ideas that a film (or, for that matter, a painting or a piece of music) brings to the surface… about the encounters it makes possible… about what, in short, touches me.

Lincoln reminds me, first, that “the people” are just as much, if not more, frustrating than those whom they choose to represent them. Relatedly, and secondly, it reminds me that the capacity to recognize inequality or injustice or senseless, terrible violence and meanness is not enough to move a society or a polity toward amelioration or reparation.

Third, it reminds me that too many of the major victories in the history of social justice and equality end with short-sighted white men congratulating themselves and patting one another on the back.

Fourth, it reminds me (and disturbs me) that in a capitalist democracy great changes (may) require great and swift exercises — even illegal exercises — of power.

Fifth, it reminds me that gaining a sense of history — of its movement, its overlapping complexities — is not the same thing as enjoying narratives that excise, darken, and sweeten.

This film seemed to me neither “a symphony of tragedy and hope” nor an attentive representation of “the details of politics.” It seemed neither a “complex, conflicted portrait” nor a movie of which low-attention-span Americans “may not be worthy.” It does not “make politics exciting again“; it does not make me sigh or reflect or wish, “If only modern American politics were remotely as entertaining.” Rather, it seems to me a messy and poorly-wrought assemblage of impulses: to inspire, to forget, to remember, to act, to weep, to ignore, to coerce, to worship, to comfort, to lie… And, as such, it seems to me a somber and sobering occasion to consider how one might wish to live, how one might forge relations to the past, and how one might begin to desire — without self-congratulation — long overdue changes to political, ethical, and societal conditions of possibility.

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