copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

The significance of Steven Spielberg's Old Mr. Lincoln:
political emotions and intertextual knowledge

by Janet Staiger

Of course, Steven Spielberg's most recent film, Lincoln, is not totally historically accurate, and exploring its errors and distortions from the historical record to prove this would be a waste of time. We expect and know that every historical account is incomplete. What matters is not this inevitability of historical inaccuracy but the implications of the representation.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

A better question, then, is, what is the significance of the film Lincoln? By "significance" I do not mean the assumed implicit meaning of the film but what lessons viewers believe they are taking from it, what morals they think the film teaches about present-day politics.[2] Moreover, I would argue that, for this film, it is these intertextual lessons about contemporary political life, not the events portrayed in the film, that rightly provoke audience emotional and ethical responses.

Lincoln depicts about four months in early 1865 in the life of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. As the first President elected from the newly formed Republican Party, which had a strong party platform objecting to slavery, Lincoln immediately faced in 1861 the secession of several Southern states which claimed in seceding a right to enter or leave the Union. This set off the U.S. Civil War which eventually took the lives of an estimated 750,000 soldiers and an uncounted number of civilians. Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, and as he faced his next term which was to begin in March 1865, he determined that passage of a constitutional amendment prohibiting the ownership of people as slaves was morally and politically important to do prior to the end of military hostilities. (The Emancipation Proclamation issued two years earlier was a wartime measure and had dubious legal authority after the war's end.) The conflict shown in the film is the legislative struggle in the "lame duck" Congress. Since the film represents the historical record, I am not spoiling the film by telling that the amendment—the thirteenth amendment which changes Southern property (the slaves) into people—passes. The narrative and political thrill is not in what happened but how it happened.

This analysis is part of a series of studies I have been pursuing about one group (or genre) of film that I have been labeling "social issue" films.[3] In considering the reception of Michael Moore's 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and the historical drama Good Night, and Good Luck (dir. George Clooney, 2005), several theses seem to apply for these sorts of films. These include the following:

1. The "selective exposure" thesis posits that people steer clear of news and ideas that they do not hold. If they do come upon them, they understand them with "selective perception" and "selective retention."[4] Given this, I argue that political filmmakers should carefully construct narrative frames to guide friendly viewers and to encourage less sympathetic ones to consider their messages. As I shall discuss shortly, this thesis operates for Lincoln in that director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner attempted in publicity about Lincoln to frame the film in particular ways, although not to perfect effect.

2. "The use of excessive emotional appeals can backfire if audiences are seeking rational arguments to hold particular opinions."[5]

3. "Conspiracy narratives are more productive in terms of audience acceptance if the narratives argue for complicated webs of power structure and allegiances rather than if they proclaim a centralized core cause (the classic paranoid version of conspiracy)."[6]

4. For documentaries, including the image of the filmmaker and other authorial figures may create a more balanced dialogue with the audience. This technique also reduces the false sense of complete objectivity.[7]

5. For a docudrama or historical fiction the purpose of which is primarily the display of a social issue, "the filmmaker can create a dialogue with history, … call[ing] upon the audience to take lessons from the past for the present"[8] through analogical thinking. As I note, implying that the real is being accurately presented almost asks for refutation of that claim, particularly when something politically or morally controversial might be at stake.[9] Here, Robert Stam's discussion of adaptations of fictional work is useful to apply to these sorts of films. Stam suggests moving away from a criterion of "faithfulness" or "fidelity" when analyzing adaptations and, instead, shifting to interrogating the authors' readings or interpretations. He even asserts,

“Adaptations, then, can take an activist stance toward their source novels, inserting them into a much broader intertextual dialogism.”[10]

From the point of view of progressive cultural theory, a primary reason for studying the past is to make it useful for the present. Moreover, considering how a historical film's representation activates contemporary social discussion is very much an obligation for a critic. So working through how the filmmaker is engaging with the past is an appropriate and productive activity, and spectators also think about the significance of a movie. This is often through analogical thinking:

"finding resemblances of one or more features between two things. This is different from allegoricalthinking in which a one-to-one mapping occurs between abstractions (such as virtue, faith, and so forth) and features of a narrative for a moral lesson."[11]

Studies of the reception of social issue films indicate that spectators and critics are commonly operating in an analogical mode, comparing the historical representation with contemporary political and social situations.

These five theses from prior studies hold up for the reception of Lincoln. As well, responses to Lincoln provide three new hypotheses, also about both cognitive and affective engagements with social issue texts. The first hypothesis derives from what analysts are claiming is revisionist in this portrait of Lincoln; the second involves affective reactions to the film; the third concerns "trigger words" and "trigger contexts."

From monument to real man

As several articles note about representing Lincoln on the screen, within U.S. cinematic history, our sixteenth President is possibly the most often depicted President, and some of the most famous actors have taken up this role. Many of these representations are within the biopic category, a formula well described by George Custen in his important study of the genre. Custen notes that audience familiarity with major historical persons allows the strategy of intertextuality to help make the parts of the life shown fit into the brief narrative of 120 to 150 minutes in length. Films usually open in medias res; the trajectory of the plot illustrates how the character creates his or her life; a heterosexual romance may place a character into the decision of choosing a career or love, or the romance may be the means to resolve another conflict; and a moment of judgment becomes the climax. Custen notes this judgment crisis often literally is a trial.[12]

Indeed, in one of the most important essays in film analysis, the Cahiers du cinéma's 1970 analysis of John Ford's 1940 film, Young Mr. Lincoln,[13] the authors point out how the filmmakers employ intertextuality to create a teleology of inevitability to the narrative of Lincoln's life. Beginning with a poem in which Lincoln's mother supposedly asks what became of her son, the film directs the audience to conjure up[14] all of the well-worn tales of honest Abe that circulate in U.S. culture.[15] The narrative does not start in Lincoln's childhood home but at the point of his first running for political office. Using make-up, lighting, and camera angles, Young Mr. Lincoln physically evokes the iconography of Lincoln and eventually will deploy many of the well known historical accounts of Lincoln's physical movements and mannerisms, including telling stories and off-color jokes.

Spielberg's Lincoln does the same. The film starts in the middle of the Civil War and opens with young soldiers reciting back to Lincoln, who is visiting the troops, parts of the Gettysburg Address. In the United States, that speech is one of the most often taught passages in school and one of the few that I was required to memorize as a youth. Lincoln also employs the physical mimicry and behavior comparisons so much so that actor Daniel Day-Lewis likely won the best actor Oscar simply for embodying what every child is taught to know is "Lincoln."

Both Ford's Lincoln and Spielberg's Lincoln make their own destinies; both narratives employ heterosexual romance as supporting plots to the primary political storyline; both focus the latter part of the story on a trial that tests Lincoln and forecasts his future. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln is the defense lawyer who miraculously saves two young men falsely accused of murder, earning the gratefulness of their mother, one man's wife, and the other's fiancée. In Lincoln, Lincoln eventually steps in when his lieutenants are not quite able to secure the votes needed for passage of the Amendment, earning the gratefulness of the radical Republicans, Lincoln's wife, and the many African American witnesses.[16] To make the magic happen, in Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln pulls from his top hat an Almanac given to him by the men's mother, seeing what others cannot: that the moon was not shining bright enough that evening for the witness to see what witness claimed he saw. In Lincoln, Lincoln cogitates a solution to his political and moral dilemma about the means to the end during a conversation with two young telegraph officers over the principles of Euclid, of whom Lincoln was a great admirer.[17] Here the resolution plays on the Euclidian proposition that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other.

What made the Cahiers' analysis so historically powerful within film studies was its strongly expressed and clear introduction of structural Marxist ideological analysis, which I would argue is one of the primary methods of textual analysis used currently.[18] The Cahiers essay is, if anything, reflexive about its method of analysis. Amongst the ideas asserted is that links between society and texts are complex, mediated, and decentered. Moreover, texts are authored cultural expressions and evince the same sort of duplicitous behavior as all other ideological statements: knowingly or not, texts repress their own politics. These repressions may be detected through skillful appraisals which include reading the text symptomatically. The critic seeks "structuring absences" and "the internal shadows of exclusion." The critic "makes [the texts] say what they have to say within what they leave unsaid, to reveal their constituent lacks."[19]

In the case of Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, the Cahiers argue that the film represses its political agenda[20] to the effect of creating a monstrous Lincoln as (1) not a compromiser but a potentially violent, castrating figure and (2) not a common man but sacred. These textual contradictions are manifested in the final images of the film in which Lincoln leaves the happy family and his male buddy to walk up a hill a little ways on his own. Storm clouds gather, music associated with the Civil War plays, and Lincoln stiffly climbs to the top of the hill. The image dissolves in the rain to the iconic Lincoln monument.

I have no idea whether Spielberg or Kushner was consciously negotiating with Ford's film. Given the prominence of Ford's film and the Lincoln authors' training in U.S. movie culture, I would hazard to claim that Young Mr. Lincoln was somewhere in the back of their minds. Spielberg has been on a major publicity tour and given many interviews about the origins of the film; he had been working on it for about ten years. One repeated story is how much President Lincoln did matter to him as a youth. Spielberg recalls seeing the Lincoln monument as a child and says it was "'a seminal moment'' for him of "'this huge man sitting in this huge chair'." However, Spielberg then indicates that he wanted to humanize Lincoln: "creating a real man from a monument and giving the character the screen time to breathe and interact, as a father, as a husband, and with all of his own darkness and brilliance'."[21]

If the huge man in the huge chair is in Spielberg's film, the monumental Lincoln appears in the first scene. As one critic notes, "And while Spielberg sets up tableaux that hint at Lincoln's mythology (our first glimpse of Day-Lewis' Lincoln, as he's meeting troops in the field, makes it look as if he already is posing for the Lincoln Memorial),"[22] Spielberg chooses to end the film with a "living" Lincoln. The final shots of Lincoln are of him on a bed after his assassination, his epitaph spoken that he is now "a man for all ages," and then a lit candle dissolving into a living Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address surrounded by crowds of people. I assume Spielberg is trying to frame the narrative in terms of what he sees as the legacy of Lincoln, a proponent of, to quote the Second Inaugural Address, a person "with malice toward none, with charity for all … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Still, to give the Cahiers their due, I would certainly not want to take this final image of a living Lincoln (or the film) at face value. Despite Spielberg's framing, some viewers of the film have expressed the affective response of "disappointment" over it, specifically about its representation of African Americans. Historian Kate Masur points out that providing suggestions of black activism before and during the Civil War would have reduced the impression that whites were "giving" emancipation to blacks.[23] As well, the thirteenth amendment was not something Lincoln dreamed up; it began as a petition campaign in early 1864 by abolitionist women headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.[24] Moreover, the film uses the standard Hollywood tactic of creating a deadline, in this case a false one: Lincoln indicated that he would call a special session of the new Congress in March 1865 that had enough votes to pass the legislation if the bill failed in the lame duck session.[25]

Here the "structuring absences" from the historical record do say something about the ideological project of the film,[26] and these absences are present in the film. The Cahiers' approach to Young Mr. Lincoln is to note the excesses and "hysteria" of the film. Spielberg knows better at this point in his filmmaking career: a melodramatic treatment in historical drama will earn him negative comments. Often the film edges toward such a display, particularly in a scene in which Mary Todd Lincoln grieves over the death of one of her sons, but Spielberg channels the melodrama into Sally Field's performance of Mary's grief, allowing Lincoln to appear paternal in comforting her, even through the body arrangements. And the castrating Lincoln appears: during a key moment in attempting to secure the votes for the amendment, Lincoln berates his colleagues, declaring that he will have these votes.

Where the absences appear are in crucial eyeline and point of view shots. One example is a short but intimate exchange between Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, an African American dressmaker and confident to Mrs. Lincoln. Lincoln was a tall man, but the staging accentuates his height over her as they discuss the potential outcome for her freed race, and his downward bend of the head suggests a father addressing a young child.[27] However, the best example occurs at the pivotal moment in the film. The amendment has passed and the war is over; Lincoln is preparing to go to the theater where he will be shot on Good Friday. His butler, an African American—ever the quiet observer of the wise leader—turns and watches as Lincoln heads toward the stairway, framed in a bright window, out of the White House. In Ford's film, the Cahiers note the passive adoration of Lincoln by mothers and young women; in Spielberg's film, the worship comes from the perspective of African Americans, and the worship implies Lincoln as a benevolent Father-figure, a motif excessively present in Spielberg's cinema.

In an extended exchange in the online blogs associated with the journal, The Atlantic, African American commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates and several other people discussed the absence of the representation of black activism in Spielberg's film. Some contributors argued for a judgment of failure for the film in its supposed lessons for progressive politics since Lincoln still portrays blacks as passive and recipients of white good will. However, Coates eventually argues that in a comparative sense, Lincoln is radical, not because of what it did not do—adequately represent black activism and progressive politics—but because of what it does do within U.S. popular culture. Pointing out the wretched history of the representation of the Civil War with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), Coates suggests that it is a major turn in U.S. cinematic culture since Spielberg's Lincoln does show some (although not all) of the significances of blacks in the historical situation. Moreover, the film does not trade in Southern "Lost Cause" nostalgia, but "Lincoln says the Civil War is about slavery."[28] This latter point is a major dynamic for historical debate about U.S. history in the last twenty years. For Coates, the social issue of the representation of U.S. history may not hinge on turning Lincoln into a "real man" but on turning dominant popular historical representations away from the myths of the South and toward the reality of America's original sin of slavery.[29] Lincoln's contradictory ideological stance may repress black activism but still reveal the fundamental place of blacks within U.S. political and social battles.

Political emotions

Although Masur expressed the emotion of "disappointment" in relation to the representation of African Americans in Lincoln, critics are describing the film as rather analytical and, consequently, unlike most Spielberg films, which are well known to irk people because of their ability to manipulate the emotions of the audience. Social issue films may trade in all sorts of emotional appeals. The excitement in Lincoln, for instance, is not whether the amendment will pass (unless the audience member does not know U.S. history) but how the victory is achieved: it is a political thriller.

Still, I personally had another very specific emotional reaction while watching it and which reoccurred even during a second screening: I cried twice.[30] Within the commentary and reviews I have studied, two other people report similar affective responses. Coates, as I noted above, is a progressive African American commentator, and he remarks that he "was crying at the end" although he gives no further details.[31] A. O. Scott, critic for the influential New York Times, writes,

"The most moving [scene] for me is a quiet scene when the 13th Amendment is read aloud. I won't give away by whom."[32]

David Edelstein liked the film but complains that it has a "stinkeroo first dialogue scene" in which black soldiers ask for equal pay and two white soldiers quote back the Gettysburg address: "The exchange sounds both too modern … and too corny."[33] Actually, it was that scene which first affected me, not because of the two white soldiers quoting the Address but because they did not finish it; an African American soldier stepped up and completed the famous lines:

"that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth."[34]

The second emotion-moving scene for me was the actual passage of the bill but not as the radicals, Republicans, and Mary Todd Lincoln celebrate but as the camera pans over the black spectators in the gallery, revealing their reactions. I speculate that what is really affecting me is joy: the right result has occurred for the victims of an unjust system. What was going on emotionally for Coates or for Scott is not clear from their brief comments, but given the content of the film at the moments they point to, I am speculating that their emotions are similar and related to mine.

In a recent essay, I considered psychoanalytical theory about crying.[35] Male viewers of Casino Royale (2006), the recent reboot of the James Bond series, reported crying over the death of the female protagonist, Vesper Lynd, with whom Bond has fallen in love and is about to leave spying for her. I argued that the crying in this instance might be a defense mechanism against a secret wish for her death: her narrative departure allows Bond to become an agent at Her Majesty's service and the Bond series can continue.[36] Here, these male spectators cried over a narrative event normally viewed as sad. Crying over the right outcome is another matter.

In general crying is associated with loss of control or emotional catharsis or even hysterical laughter. What crying is, is a physical expression of intense emotion or affect.[37] Moreover, as scholars of the history of crying point out, crying need not be equated with the feminine.[38] A long history of the "man of sentiment" represents such emotional welling of feelings as proper for males. Tom Lutz quotes a 1755 essay in which the author states that

"moral weeping proceeds from, and is always attended with, such real sentiments of the mind, and feeling of the heart, as do honour to human nature."[39]

Although crying may have been a mid-twentieth-century taboo for men in the United States,[40] that stigma has dissipated in the last decade: witness the general sympathy for President Barack Obama's chocking up numerous times discussing the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in December 2012. FIG 24 And for a much more everyday example, note the two males—Coates and Scott—who volunteer their emotional response to Lincoln.

In the instance of the sort of historical drama film which I am considering here—a social issue film—my question goes to, why do we cry when things go right or people do the right or ethical thing? Or things do not go right or people do not do the right thing? (After all, social issue films portray not only historical victories but also historical defeats.) As Ed Tan and Nico Frijda point out, sentimental literature was written with a moral purpose, and this agenda now often shows up in cinema. However, Tan and Frijda are considering the more standard melodramatic plots of "justice in jeopardy" and "moral rectitude under seduction"[41] in which the emotional response relates specifically to the situations the characters face. Tan and Frijda point out that audience "crying is a response to helplessness, rather than specifically to grief," as spectators await the resolution. Alternatively,

“First, there is joy as a response to a favorable outcome . … Second, there is relief where hopes are fulfilled and fears are terminated. And third, there are acute feelings toward the protagonist, like pity and admiration, and corresponding feelings toward the antagonist, such as anger and schadenfreude.”[42]

In the case of the instances of crying that I have found for Lincoln, none of them involves the situational outcomes for characters—what is going on in the diegesis of the film. Each example is connected with ethical or political preferences for a broader panorama and resolution of moral and social life, something that is surely very individualized in how a spectator might be reading the narrative and drawing intertextual analogies. It is the "big" picture that is at stake not the trajectory of the lives of individuals: hence "social issue" and "political emotion."[43]

Now, nineteenth- and twentieth-century melodrama articulated broad themes of social criticism. I do not want to imply that the private and the public are separate phenomena. Rather, what I want to propose is that one can cry about the diegetic characters, but one can also cry (and have other emotional responses) about the broader non-diegetical world in which the filmic characters represent historical actors and in which spectators are real participants. Moreover, the emotional responses as a consequence of analogical thinking may matter more in evaluating a film's ideology when the focus shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic targets, here both in the case of "disappointment" about the representation of African American actions in changing history as well as joyful crying that ethical actions toward improving human rights have occurred. This emphasis on emotions in relation to analogical thinking, the significance of the film, may be more obvious as I turn to my third point.

"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] 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.


Thanks for all of the listening and advising go to Susan McLeland, Deborah Wuliger, Peter Staiger, Julian Hanich and the very attentive and helpful audience at the University of Groningen in January 2013, the University of Texas Film Faculty group, and Jump Cut, especially Chuck Kleinhans.

1. Actually, given that it is a film, several historians have indicated that its creators have done a fairly decent job in representing the politics of passing the thirteenth amendment. See National Public Radio, "We Ask a Historian: Just How Accurate Is 'Lincoln'," National Public Radio Morning Edition, 22 November 2012, http://news.wpr.org/post/we-ask-historian-just-how-accurate-lincoln, accessed online 27 November 2012; Doug Robinson, "Movie Mostly Accurate, Lincoln Expert Claims," Desert Morning News, 26 November 2012, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765616476/New-Spielberg-movie-Lincoln-mostly-accurate-Lincoln-expert-claims.html?pg=all, accessed online 27 November 2012; David Bromwich, "How Close to Lincoln?" The New York of Books, 10 January 2013, pp. 8 and 10. As I shall discuss below, criticism has primarily been about its lack of portrayal of African American actions during the Civil War to eliminate slavery; see, for instance, "Lincoln's Use of Politics for Noble Ends," New York Times, 27 November 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/opinion/lincolns-use-of-politics-for-noble-ends.html?_r=0, accessed online 27 November 2012, and Jon Wiener, "The Nation's Blogs [webname]," "The Trouble with Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln,'" www.thenation.com/blogs, 27 November 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/171461/trouble-steven-spielbergs-lincoln#axzz2WlifRWJW, accessed online 27 November 2012.

2. For background on the distinction between meaning and significance see: Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 24.

3. "Social issue" films may be based on real events or be completely created stories. They overlap in part historical dramas, docudramas, and documentaries which may or may not be functioning to emphasize social problems and moral outcomes. In the cases studied so far, I have been considering documentaries and docudramas (historical dramas). Janet Staiger, "'Not about a Conspiracy to Run the World': Political Films and Everyday Interpretation," Unpublished paper, 2006; Janet Staiger, "'Based on the True Story of': Political Filmmaking and Analogical Thinking," Recherches sémiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry (forthcoming).

4. J. T. Kapper, The Effects of Mass Communication (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960); D. J. Paletz, J. Koon, E. Whitehead, and R. B. Hagens, "Selective Exposure: The Potential Boomerang Effect," Journal of Communication 22, no. 1 (March 1972): 48-53; and N. J. Stroud, Niche News: The Politics of News Choice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

5. Staiger, "'Based on the True Story'." See Paletz et al.,"Selective Exposure," 52 and, for a recent example, Staiger, "'Not about a Conspiracy to Run the World'."

Staiger, "'Based on the True Story'." See Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” [1964] in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books 1967): 3-40; Staiger, "'Not about a Conspiracy'."

Staiger, "'Not about a Conspiracy',"

Staiger, "'Based on the True Story'."

See, for instance, Janet Staiger, “Cinematic Shots: The Narration of Violence,” in The Persistence of History, ed. Vivian Sobchack (New York: Routledge/American Film Institute Readers 1996), pp. 39-54.

10. Robert Stam, “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation," in Film Adaptation, ed. James Naremore (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), p. 64.

11. Staiger, "'Based on the True Story'."

12. George F, Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992), pp. 149-50. On trials as climaxes, see pp. 186-92. Other important elements are described; see pp. 51-76. An argument could easily be made that this film is not a biopic but a political thriller. See, for instance, the comment to this effect by A. O. Scott in "A President Engaged in a Great Civil War," New York Times, 9 November 2012, p. C10. Spielberg also indicates he was thinking of the film as a political thriller; see below. However, I would argue that most biopics display symptoms of other genres. Young Mr. Lincoln could also be called a detective film. At least temporarily I would simply bracket this nomenclature and categorization question.

13. Editors of Cahiers du cinéma, "John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln," Cahiers du cinéma, no. 223 (1970), rpt. in Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 493-529.

14. The magical element is also a motif in the film, as Lincoln literally pulls proofs out of his top hat; see below. Apparently the real Lincoln also carried notes in his hat so the act has a basis in reality.

15. This film is very much directed toward an U.S. audience. As I shall note about the representation of Lincoln, the film assumes cultural knowledges which other national groups do not have. Examining the non-U.S. reception of the film in comparison would be valuable but not something this essay is able to do.

16. Note the parallel feminization of the beneficiaries of Lincoln's acts.

17. The Euclid device has a historical basis in terms of Lincoln's ways of thinking, if not a literal one for the specific political situation. See Ravi Chaudhary, "Steven Spielberg's Lincoln Unveils the 'Mathematics' of Breaking Gridlock in Washington," Politics Daily, 21 November 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ravi-chaudhary/steven-spielbergs-lincoln_b_2155859.html, accessed online 27 November 2012.

18. The Cahiers' analysis derives from Louis Althusser's structural Marxism and the literary application by Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production [1966], trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978). It is indicative of the shift in textual analysis culture although I would certainly not want to claim that it is unique and causal for everything else that was occurring in the late 1960s and early 1970s in film studies.

19. Cahiers du cinéma, "Young Mr. Lincoln," p. 496.

20. The election of a Republican in the 1940 Presidential election. This literal political-agenda thesis has been the most roundly disparaged aspect of the argument.

21. Spielberg quoted in Bert Osborne, "Spielberg's Towering Epic," The Atlantic Journal-Constitution, 16 November 2012, LexisNexis search, accessed online 27 November 2012. Spielberg repeated that story in early February 2013; see Melena Ryzik, "It Took a Village to Film 'Lincoln'," New York Times, 7 February 2013, pp. C1 and C3.

22. Sean P. Means, "'Lincoln' Offers a Singular Portrait of a President in Crisis," The Salt Lake Tribune, 17 November 2012, http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/55245134-223/lincoln-lewis-spielberg-president.html.csp, accessed online 27 November 2012.

23. Kate Masur, "In Spielberg's 'Lincoln,' Passive Black Characters Historian Kate Masur Says Movie Disappoints in the Way It Portrays African-Americans," States News Service, 19 November 2012, http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-309231393.html, accessed online 27 November 2012.

24. "Lincoln's Use of Politics for Noble Ends," New York Times, 27 November 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/opinion/lincolns-use-of-politics-for-noble-ends.html?_r=0, accessed online 27 November 2012.

25. Jon Wiener, "The Nation's Blogs [webname]," "The Trouble with Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln,'" www.thenation.com/blogs, 27 November 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/171461/trouble-steven-spielbergs-lincoln#axzz2WlifRWJW, accessed online 27 November 2012.

26. They are not just historical errors or omissions without consequence.

27. Lincoln's fathering abilities are emphasized as well through several scenes with Lincoln spending time with the youngest son, Tad.

28. Ta-Nehisi Coates, series of entries on Lincoln, The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com, 29 November 2012-6 December 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/some-quick-thoughts-on-lincoln/265760/,  accessed online 13 December 2012. Quotation from 4 December 2012.

29. The writers speculate that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained may also participate in such a revision.

30. I did not actually shed tears but a lump in the throat and water in the eyes is my equivalent for a "tear-jerker" scene.

31. Ta-Nehisis Coates, "Some Quick Thoughts on 'Lincoln'," The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com, 29 November 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/some-quick-thoughts-on-lincoln/265760/,  accessed online 13 December 2012.

32. A. O. Scott, "A President Engaged in a Great Civil War," New York Times, 9 November 2012, p. C1.

33. David Edelstein," The Spielberg Address; Lincoln Preserves the Union between Drama and History Lesson," New York Magazine, 12 November 2012, http://nymag.com/movies/reviews/edelstein-lincoln-skyfall-2012-11/, accessed online 27 November 2012.

34. Various versions of the text exist. This is the dialogue from the film.

35. Psychoanalytical theory is only one way to approach this phenomenon. An excellent review of both psychological and sociological theory is in Tom Lutz, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York: Norton, 1999), pp. 115-92.

36. Janet Staiger, "'The First Bond Who Bleeds, Literally and Metaphorically': Gendered Spectatorship for 'Pretty Boy' Action Movies," in Feminism at the Movies: Understanding Gender in Contemporary Popular Cinema, ed. Hilary Radner and Rebecca Stringer (New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 13-24.

37. Lutz, Crying, pp. 19-21. Ed S. H. Tan and Nico H. Frijda focus on loss of control; see their "Sentiment in Film Viewing," in Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion, ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 49, 53-54..

38. Robyn R. Warhol argues for a third gender, the "effeminate," when having a "good cry." She is considering mostly sentimental literature. Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003.

39. Anonymous, Man: A Paper for Ennobling the Species [1755], quoted in Lutz, Crying, p. 31.

40. Lutz, Crying, p. 64.

41. Tan and Frijda, "Sentiment," p. 58.

42. Tan and Frijda, "Sentiment," p. 54.

43. Nadja Zadorina points out to me that what is likely at stake in these crying responses to Lincoln is "moral" emotions as much as political ones. Indeed, these should be separated out as distinct although likely one builds on the other. Email from Nadja Zadorina to Janet Staiger, 23 January 2013. Analysis of moral emotions is developing. Murray Smith points out that

"cognitive judgments integral to emotions have an ethical character"; moreover, in distinguishing between alignment and allegiance with characters, how a "film elicits responses of sympathy and antipathy toward characters, responses [are] triggered—if not wholly determined—by the moral structure of the film." "Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetics, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances," in Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 218 and 220, emphasis in original.

For a review of the literature and development of the relation between bodily responses "such as tears, goose bumps, a warmth or opening up of the chest, and a lump in the throat" (p. 362) and moral emotions within the uses-and-gratifications approach, see Mary Beth Oliver, Tilo Hartmann, and Julia K. Wodley, "Elevation in Response to Entertainment Portrayals of Moral Virtue," Human Communication Research 38 (2012), 360-378.

44. Richard A. Friedman, "Primal Emotions Come to Fore in Politics," New York Times, 13 November 2012, p. D6.

45. Friedman, "Primal Emotions," p. D6.

46. In either U.S. or European football.

47. For a review of the argumentation for both literature and film, see Staiger, Interpreting Films, pp. 1-97.

48. Liam Lacey, "The Spielberg Presidency," The Globe and Mail (Canada), 2 November 2012, LexisNexis search, accessed online 27 November 2012.

49. Ann Hornaday, "'Lincoln' Premiere a Reminder that in Heat of Campaign, Political Films Walk a Fine Line," WashingtonPost.com, 5 November 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-04/entertainment/35503251_1_lincoln-16th-president-political-films, accessed online 27 November 2012. Hornaday was correct; see below.

50. Tony Kushner, the screenplay author, worked on the script for six years; Jessica Winter, "Tony Kushner on His Lincoln Screenplay, Séances and the Greatest Political Speech of All Time," Time.com, 25 October 2012, http://entertainment.time.com/2012/10/25/tony-kushner-on-his-lincoln-screenplay/, accessed 4 December 2012.

51. For an explicit articulation of this context, see Jason Bailey, "If Only Obama's and Chris Christie's Critics Could Watch 'Lincoln'," The Atlantic, 2 November 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/if-only-obamas-and-chris-christies-critics-could-watch-lincoln/264482/, accessed online 20 June 2013.

52. Kushner quoted in Winter, "Tony Kushner."

53. Richard Corless, "Lincoln: Spielberg's Urgent Civics Lesson," Time, 8 November 2012, http://entertainment.time.com/2012/11/08/lincoln-spielbergs-urgent-civics-lesson/, accessed online 4 December 2012. Also see his list of comparisons and contrasts between the two Presidents.

54. Tierney Sneed, "Lincoln Review: Steven Spielberg Teaches Lessons in Leadership," USNews.com, 8 November 2012, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/11/08/lincoln-review-steven-spielberg-teaches-lessons-in-leadership, accessed online 27 November 2012. Also see Lacey, "The Spielberg Presidency."

55. Edelstein, "Spielberg Address."

56. Michael Hogan, "Is 'Lincoln' A Memo to Obama from Liberal Hollywood?" Politics Daily, 12 November 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-hogan/is-lincoln-a-memo-to-obam_b_2118022.html, accessed online 27 November 2012.

57. "The Business Leader [webname]," "Obama Should Watch 'Lincoln' to Learn How to be President," www.businessinsider.com, 18 November 2012, http://www.audacityofhypocrisy.com/2012/11/18/obama-should-watch-lincoln-to-learn-how-to-be-a-better-president/, accessed online 27 November 2012. I repeat the term "Lincolnesque" because it appeared repeated in the reception, as if that concept is universally understood.

58. "A Hollywood Republican [webname]," "Abe Lincoln—A Real President," www.hollywoodrepublican.net, 17 November 2012, http://www.hollywoodrepublican.net/2012/11/abe-lincoln-a-real-president/, accessed online 27 November 2012. Other articulations of these sorts of political lessons to be learned—although not always politically negative as is this one—are in Bailey, "What Steven Spilberg's "Lincoln'"; John Dickerson, "Can Obama Learn to Handle Congress By Watching 'Lincoln'?" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 November 2012, Lexis Nexis search, accessed online 27 November 2012; "Chicagoist [webname],"Obama, Lincoln, and the Misuses of History, Lexis Nexis search, accessed online 27 November 2012; Ravi Chaudhary, "Steven Spielberg's Lincoln Unveils the 'Mathematics' of Breaking Gridlock in Washington," Politics Daily, 21 November 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ravi-chaudhary/steven-spielbergs-lincoln_b_2155859.html, accessed online 27 November 2012; David Brooks, "'Lincoln' Shows Challenge and Greatness of Politics," New York Times, 23 November 2012, rpt. in Austin American-Statesman, 27 November 2012, p. A9; Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, "Beltway Stop in the Oscar Race," New York Times, 22 December 2012, pp. C1 and C7;

59. Ken Burns quoted in "Meet the Press," "'Meet the Press' Panelist Ken Burns Denounces Tea Party: 'Vitriol' Motivated by Racism," newsbusters.org, 26 November 2012, http://www.mrc.org/biasalerts/meet-press-panelist-ken-burns-pbs-denounces-tea-party-vitriol-motivated-racism, accessed online 27 November 2012.

60. Scott, "A President Engaged," p. C10.

61. Scott, "A President Engaged," p. C10.

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