With much of film culture focused on a fictional freedom fighter last week, there wasn't enough talk about the historical freedom fighter who also debuted on theater screens Friday: "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg. Critical reaction to Spielberg's unorthodox biopic has been strong — with a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a B+ average on Criticwire — but not particularly in depth, at least not yet. One notable exception is an insightful and well-researched essay by J. Hoberman at Tablet Magazine which considers the film — directed by Spielberg and written by playwright Tony Kushner, two of America's highest-profile Jewish artists — as a "Jewish" representation of Abraham Lincoln.
"As imagined by Spielberg and Kushner, Lincoln’s Lincoln is the ultimate mensch. He is a skilled natural psychologist, an interpreter of dreams, and a man blessed with an extraordinarily clever and subtle legal mind. A master storyteller who speaks in parables and employs slyly self-deprecating humor, he is a small 'd' democrat glad to converse with anyone, willing to shoulder the solitary burden of historical tragedy, and, although capable of righteous wrath, ruled by compassion for all."
Hoberman then goes on to trace how the Great Emancipator — should we call him the Great Oy-mancipator in this case? Sure, why not — was championed and exalted almost immediately after his death by American Jews who recognized a modern day Moses in his story. Like that founder of the Jewish faith, Hoberman says, Lincoln was a man who "successfully led the oppressed out of bondage but was unable himself to enter the Promised Land." Using excerpts from historical speeches, he connects the history of American Judaism with Lincoln hero worship.
I confess when I watched "Lincoln" last week, none of this struck me — but reading Hoberman's piece, it now feels facepalmingly obvious. That's good film criticism for you — it goes straight-up Old Testament on you.
Read more of "Avraham Lincoln Avinu."