In a review of Robert Redford’s new movie The Conspirator, about the plot to kill Lincoln, Ann Hornaday makes an interesting point, that one of the major patriotic ideals for which many Americans died in the Civil War–namely, the Union–is nearly always denigrated in movies and has faded from the American consciousness:
As University of Virginia history professor Gary Gallagher gracefully proves in his book “Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten,” about how popular culture has shaped ideas about the Civil War, the preservation of the Union has never been deemed worth valorizing by filmmakers, who have historically been more drawn to Lost Cause romanticism or self-flattering stories that emphasize emancipation of enslaved people or the reconciliation of the white South and white North. (At one point in “The Conspirator,” noting the higher causes they both fought for, Surratt tells Aiken, “We’re the same,” a classic reconciliationist elision of the myriad ways the two sides weren’t the same.)
Considering the depiction of white Union soldiers in such late-20th-century movies as “Glory” and “Dances With Wolves,” Gallagher writes, “recent Civil War films fail almost completely to convey any sense of what the Union Cause meant to millions of northern citizens. More than that, they often cast the U.S. military, a military force that saved the republic and destroyed slavery, in a decidedly negative, post-Vietnam light.”
Replace “post-Vietnam” with “post-Iraq” and you get a pretty good description of how the U.S. military is portrayed in “The Conspirator.” Rather than a principle worth fighting for, or a fragile democracy still vulnerable to dead-enders who would reignite the war, the Union is painted as the nest that hatched the egg of an overweening state and arrogant abuse of power. Hollywood may be where Confederates are buried in their onetime capital, but for moviegoers, it’s still the place where the Union Cause goes to die.
The review cites the anti-government sentiment of both the left and the right for denigrating the Union cause. But surely our national union is more than just government and can be embraced by those who believe in a limited government. The Constitution was put together to form “a more perfect union.” Does anyone today really want us to exist in separate states as separate countries? Can we recover the love of all of these states and all of these different people coming together into the Union? Where does the ideal of the Union manifest itself in today’s love of country? Or is there no longer a place for it?