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Lincoln

posted: 1.24.13 by Jack Solomon

When advising students on how to go about choosing a movie for semiotic analysis, I always suggest that they have a look at those films that have been nominated for an Oscar Best Picture award.  This is by no means a sure-fire route to finding a culturally significant movie for analysis (and, of course, every film is semiotically significant), but by definition any Oscar-nominated movie has attracted significant popular attention and is likely, accordingly, to offer a rich field for analysis.

Such is certainly the case for this year’s frontrunner in the Academy sweepstakes, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  Indeed, if I was a wagering sort of person I’d be betting the farm on it to win right now, not only because it is a very well conceived, written, and directed film that displays some of the best acting in Hollywood history, but because it is a potent cultural sign as well.  And it is Lincoln‘s status as a sign that I would like to look at now.

To begin with, Lincoln is one of those movies that the members of the Academy love to award Oscars to.  Quite aware of the poor reputation Hollywood has earned for mostly making action-packed blockbusters for adolescent audiences, Academy voters gratefully shower gold-plated statuettes on those films that aim at the higher end of cultural production.  Historically themed movies do particularly well in this regard (think Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, and Shakespeare in Love—which boasted the added cachet of being about a high cultural literary icon), and Lincoln lies very much within this tradition of movies that polish up Hollywood’s tarnished image.

But beyond the significance of Lincoln‘s association with other historically themed movies there is the man himself.  Probably the only president left who can function as a national hero (Washington’s and Jefferson’s status as slave owners has much reduced their personal appeal, while both Kennedy and FDR have got reputations for sexual license to live down), Lincoln is not only, as Edwin Stanton declared, a man for the ages, he is a man for the mainstream as well, and there aren’t too many political leaders left like that.

Not that Abraham Lincoln doesn’t have his detractors.  Neo-confederates on the right continue to denounce the sixteenth president as the “tyrant” who “started” the Civil War, while New Left critics still complain that Lincoln wasn’t sufficiently anti-slavery.  But the fact that Spielberg’s Lincoln is a popular success (91% on the Tomatometer), as well as an Academy juggernaut, is a sign that the American mainstream is still behind the great rail splitter.  A signifier of the American dream as well as an exemplar of that which is most decent in the American character (not to mention within American democracy), Abraham Lincoln is a much-needed unifying figure at a time of rampant political polarization.  This is ironic, of course, because it was his election to the presidency in 1860 that caused America (which was even more polarized then than it is today) to split in two.  But that wasn’t Lincoln’s fault, and I personally am glad to see the popularity of this new movie about him.  It was once said that if you wanted to write a bestseller, something about Abraham Lincoln’s doctor’s dog would do the trick, and it looks like Lincoln is still a subject of widespread admiration.  That’s good to know, because Abraham Lincoln is one national hero we can’t afford to lose.

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