From the beginning, Steven Spielberg was determined to steer his Abraham Lincoln movie clear of contemporary politics. He specifically requested a post Election Day release date so as not to be engulfed in the push and pull of the heated presidential race. “Lincoln today is beyond partisan politics,” Spielberg said recently. Indeed, the 16th president was the first Republican president, yet he’s frequently claimed by modern Democrats, as well, who view Lincoln’s freeing the slaves and the passing of the 13th Amendment as an essential part of the ongoing struggle for human rights and an essential milestone in a march that can be traced through women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and today’s debate over gay rights.
When Lincoln opens in select theaters on Friday (it opens nationally the following weekend), three days after American selects its next president, Spielberg hopes that it might contribute “some kind of soothing or even healing effect.” (“With malice towards none…” Lincoln famously said during his conciliatory second inaugural speech.) But Spielberg was wise to demand a post-election release, because the film will be inevitably interpreted through our modern political lens. In 1865, Lincoln was torn between his duties and principles, pressured by political friends and foes alike to end the bloody civil war and establish a legal framework for the guaranteed emancipation of the slaves. Twenty-first-century partisan Democrats might equate Lincoln’s determination against legislative inertia with President Obama’s fight to pass universal health care — the film is very much a wonky Beltway drama, full of horse trading and uneasy alliances. Republicans, similarly, will point to Lincoln as the one essential man who refuses to compromise or settle for half a loaf when the issue is freedom.
But cynical Republicans might also see another more politically-expedient motive for Spielberg’s preference for a post-election release date. His Democrats are scoundrels! During the past 150 years, the roles of the political parties have shifted in at least one important way. The 19th-century Democratic Party represented the Establishment; Republicans, at the time, rose from the embers of the decayed Whig party and were considered the radicals of their day. Against Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln, many of the Democrats are portrayed as corrupt hacks who resort to the Bible to legitimize their bigotry. Their actions to fight Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment are so despicable that Spielberg went so far as to change the names of the actual Democratic congressman who voted against it (in order to protect their living descendents). At the New York Film Festival in October, Spielberg acknowledged that this political role-reversal might be “confusing.”
Make no mistake, the Democrats in Lincoln are anything but heroic, and that’s an inconvenient truth for Spielberg, a strong supporter for Barack Obama and Democratic causes. It’s conceivable that Lincoln might have influenced some viewers’ votes had it opened before the election — especially undecided voters who might associate the film’s antagonistic Democrats with those on their current ballot. “The movie coming out after the election gives the film at least a chance to stand on its own,” Spielberg said in an interview. It also allowed our candidates — especially Democrats — to do the same.