It’s no coincidence that Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated film "Lincoln" opens in theaters nationwide so soon after our presidential election. After months of endless political ads, of back-and-forth arguments and accusations, of scandals and demonizing, the American people are exhausted from politics.
The movie, set during the last, tumultuous few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, shows a man who is passionate, intelligent and heroic—a far cry, many say, from today’s presidential candidates. It’s the third film about our 16th president this year. The other two are lighter takes on the man, both portraying him as an action hero: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and the straight-to-DVD "Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies." It’s movies like these that help lift Abraham Lincoln from mere mortal to pop culture legend—because it’s just not enough to free a whole race of people from the shackles of slavery: He has to fight vampires and zombies as well.
Perhaps the most famous president in U.S. history, Lincoln has permeated pop culture the way no other president has. There is even a Wikipedia entry about it. He has been featured in books, movies, cartoons, documentaries, TV shows, comic books and even video games. He has risen to legendary, even mythological status. According to this article, he’s a superhero.
We have chosen to remember him for certain, select reasons: He was the tallest U.S. president, standing at 6’4”. He was strong and good with an axe and proficient at wrestling. He was a great leader and speaker, working to abolish slavery in the United States. And he was assassinated for it.
There are two things that pop culture has taught us: We love our martyrs, and we love our underdogs. Lincoln was both.
But he was also just a man. During his life, he was surrounded by tragedy. His mother died when he was only 9. Of his four sons, only one survived into adulthood. It’s believed that his wife, Mary Todd, was mentally ill. And Lincoln himself suffered from depression. Some say he was racist, despite his effort to abolish slavery. What few photos we have of him show a man with quiet discontent. Pop culture remembers him one way, history another.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is an attempt to meld the two together. Despite all of his hardships, Lincoln overcame these adversities for a greater good—because we don’t need an axe-wielding, action hero to save us from vampires and zombies. We just need someone willing to do what is morally right, despite how bleak things may be. We don’t want our heroes to be perfect. We just want them to have the moral strength to do what is right despite what they and others may think. Lincoln fits that bill.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We need a hero. America is desperate for one. Pop culture dictates that fact. Lincoln serves as a reminder for what it means to be one.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.