Saturday, February 16, 2013

Thomas Frank: "Team of Rivals" is "Uninspiring to the Point of Boredom."

Writing in Harper's, Frank tells us what he really thinks about Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham LincolnHe writes:

Despite having triggered these sequential booms in Lincolniana, Team of Rivals is uninspiring to the point of boredom. It is not only a retelling of the most familiar story in American history but also a fairly dreary one. Goodwin’s account doesn’t provoke or startle with insight. Most of what she tells us has been told us before — many, many times. Indeed, the theme song from Ken Burns’s The Civil War played involuntarily in my head as I read, again, about the election of 1860, the Peninsula Campaign, the maneuvering in Washington over emancipation.

And he goes on:

It was, in other words, an unremarkable arrangement, documented here in an unremarkable book, all of it together about as startling as a Hallmark card. How did such a commonplace slice of history come to define our era?

Frank argues that the book has become so popular because it has been embraced by the corporate world as a "leadership" book, it was endorsed by Barack Obama as a book about bipartisanship, and it was made into a movie by Steven Speilberg that celebrated political compromise.

Frank then goes after Speilberg. He says that Lincoln, with its portrayals of backroom dealings and vote-buying, vindicates corruption.

Filled with populist rage, Frank concludes:

Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already — Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad — and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.

If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don’t stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Give us the real deal. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists — that’s a task for a real auteur.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not that I didn't enjoy Frank's evisceration of Spielbergism, but his cynical bleat about our worser angels is what's really boring--and destructive.

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful.”–--C.S. Lewis