Hurricane Sandy may have influenced the reception of Spielberg's film. Because the Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, worked with Obama and praised the President's leadership during the crisis, trigger words at the time included "bipartisan," "compromise," and "leadership." ...

... Given that context, intertextual analogies with the current political situation as well as viewers' own political allegiances could have sparked their specific emotional responses to Lincoln.

"A civics lesson .. energetically staged and alive with moral energy."


"Trigger words" and "trigger contexts"

In an article in the New York Times published shortly after the re-election of Obama, Richard A. Friedman writes,

"Just one look at the dejection on the faces of Romney supporters or the jubilation of Obama supporters on election night should tell you that politics is first and foremost a very emotional affair."[44]

Using sociological, psychological, and biological research, Friedman suggests that political bonds are akin to being an enthusiast for sports: athletic "fans the next day speak about how 'we won,' and feel generally more optimistic, strong and self-confident. Conversely, the losing side feels depressed, defeated and angry." A political outcome "unleashes similar . . . emotions." [45] [open endnotes in new window] The one ripple of emotion that I detected while watching Lincoln with a large audience on opening weekend was during a speech by staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens when he lacerates his Congressional opposition. The audience response was a muted version of a sports-crowd reaction to a football score; it was as if Representative Stevens had made the winning goal.[46]

One of the major propositions for reception studies is that interpretations and responses change based on context, the "horizons of expectation."[47] Filmmakers know this too. Spielberg intentionally delayed the general opening of Lincoln until ten days after the November 6, 2012, Presidential elections to avoid accusations that he was attempting to intervene in that contest and thus possibly diminishing the film's reach to being only a specific political tract. That framing choice by Spielberg did not, however, eliminate dynamics prompting pre-release statements about lessons being learned. Columnist Liam Lacey notes,

“At the recent press junket for Lincoln, Spielberg insisted the current film had ‘nothing to do with the current politics. It has nothing to do with holding a mirror up to the way we conduct our business on Capitol Hill today.’ We know better. A film about Abraham Lincoln today is a film about Barack Obama.”[48]

Moreover, it was not hard to forecast the lines of analogical thinking. Film critic Ann Hornaday speculated before the election,

“If President Obama is reelected, his most ardent supporters may well see an allegory for their own candidate's last four years of navigating partisan rancor to effect sweeping change. If he loses, Lincoln will embody the very character and political genius that Obama's detractors insist he lacked throughout an administration marked by squandered promise and ideological gridlock.”[49]

Thus, not only was the general political scene the context for reading Lincoln, but the post-election struggles also affected the U.S. discussions of what the film tells U.S. citizenry is the lesson to be taken from it. Certainly not part of the filmmakers' framing considerations, since the film has been in production for multiple years,[50] was the very specific November-December legislative battle over the so-called "fiscal cliff" in which lawmakers wrangled over tax revenues and spending cuts. Yet, the specific legislative drama of the two-month "lame duck" session has been only another instance of the four-year confrontation between Obama's Democratic Party and the opposition, the Republicans, so the language and argumentation might well have been the same no matter the timing of the film's release.

However, another local context possibly heightened the political reaction. That context was Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane to hit the United States, based on its diameter of 1100 miles. The storm surge hit the very highly populated areas around New York City and upper New Jersey state on October 29, resulting in damages currently estimated at $65.6 billion, second in cost only to Hurricane Katrina. In the days right after the storm and the weekend before the Presidential election, New Jersey Governor, Republican Chris Christy, a major and outspoken critic of Obama, violated Republican law. Not only did he work with Obama to support the victims of the storm but he publicly praised Obama's leadership during the crisis.[51] Some Republicans would even blame Christy for possibly costing them the Presidential election since Christy's words flew in the face of Republican representations of Obama as aloof, lazy, stupid, and dogmatic. According to Republican doctrine, Obama cannot create "bipartisan" accomplishments because he is unable to "compromise" and is not a "leader." Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, focused his campaign rhetoric on insisting he was exactly what Obama is not.

That these words—"bipartisan," "compromise," and "leadership"—seem to circulate in the debates over the significance of the film is also a consequence of how Spielberg and Kushner did frame the film's lesson. They, too, used those words. And they, too, positioned the film as having analogical relevance for the contemporary context. For example, Kushner remarks,

“More than any President that I can remember, President Obama really seems to understand that he's building something. … One of the things [in the mess he inherited] has required of him is a willingness to compromise his own, I would assume, deepest desires in order to keep government functioning, in spite of the unprecedented level of obstruction from the Republican Party.”[52]

As Hornaday predicted, many commentators saw Obama and our present political scene as very much like Lincoln and the era of the end of slavery. Richard Corliss titles his review in part as "Spielberg's Urgent Civics Lesson," noting that "the barbs directed at Abraham Lincoln have the prickly familiarity of the insults that have been directed at Barack Obama…: that he was a strange, aloof man convinced of his superiority to the congressional rabble…."[53] Another review is subtitled "Steven Spielberg Teaches Lessons in Leadership" and claims that "one of the film's most courageous moments comes when a character tempers his own beliefs for the sake of compromise."[54]

These articulations of Spielberg's lesson may have a faint ring of the critical. Many liberal Americans have been disappointed in Obama's Presidency and that position shows up in the commentary. Edelstein wonders, should the film be "taken as . . . a gentle rebuke to Obama, who lacked Lincolnesque wiles on other fronts to entice his rivals to the table?"[55] Another writer suggests, "Lincoln may be a large-scale liberal fantasy of what Obama could accomplish if only he were (even) more Lincoln-esque."[56]

Conservative critics of Obama also agreed Obama was not Lincoln; moreover, Obama was a long ways from being Lincoln. One columnist complained that Obama "has often seemed removed from the political process…" He is aloof while Lincoln was "fully engaged." "His presidency, as a result, has hardly been Lincolnesque." The columnist encouraged Obama to watch the film "to learn how to be President."[57] An even more vitriolic essay catalogued the differences between Obama and Lincoln which included that Obama does not work tirelessly; he did a fundraiser in Las Vegas "immediately after the Benghazi [Libya] incident, instead of finding out what really happened and dealing with it"; he is not interested in being Commander-in-Chief; Obamacare is causing loss of jobs and "may lead to another Great Depression"; and "Lincoln is a great leader. Obama is not. To compare the two, is a crime."[58]

While most of the variations on the lesson-to-be-learned involve contemporary political analogies and emotional political allegiances within U.S. political-party conflict, one other significance theme has appeared and involves the structuring absence in both Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln and Spielberg's Lincoln: U.S. racism. Documentarian Ken Burns raised this in a Meet the Press newscast. He suggested three lessons derive from Lincoln. One is about "compromise"; a second is the need for "good government"; the third is about race. Burns states,

"Race is always there in America. It's always something we don't want to talk about. … we are still dealing with our original sin…"[59]

Scott also articulates this: "this is finally a movie about how difficult and costly it has been for the United States to recognize the full and equal humanity of black people."[60] Of course, part of the anger about Obama is due to racism directed to him, but his race cannot be raised without accusations of unjustified raising of the issue of race. Americans cannot have it either way, it often seems.

The reception of Lincoln offers several new theses about social issue films. One is that ideological and reception analysis may help illuminate why critics and audiences focus on particular historical presences and absences in a historical drama. One can only imagine the potential plethora of historical omissions and distortions that any historical representation might commit; ideological and reception analysis can illuminate what the debates over a film indicate about the significance of the film to its audiences and what these debates portend for contemporary political and ethical beliefs. Second, intertextual analogies must be studied as part of the possible causes for emotional responses to films. Emotions experienced during a film may be due to the narrative events portrayed, but they may also be related to intertextual analogies to present-day moral and political issues. Third, like for sports, political allegiances and contexts figure heavily into what diegetic words or situations will produce intertextual analogies. As critic A. O. Scott put it about Lincoln, "This is, in other words, … a civics lesson that is energetically staged and alive with moral energy."[61] For scholars to understand the places of film and media in the lives of citizens, finding better means to study these lessons matters.

Go to Notes page

To topPrint versionJC 55 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.