Sunday, December 16, 2012

"This isn't usual....this is history."

Thoughts on Spielberg's Lincoln

As many of you are well aware, the talk of Steven Spielberg's most recent epic, Lincoln, has been immense.  The motion picture has been met with near-universal praise and deemed the director's best since the 1990s.  As a student of both history and film, I was gratified by the even balance of dramatic creativity and historical narrative.  Furthermore, the film solidifies the cinematic reversal of the inaccurate Lost Cause mythology that has been pervasive in most Civil War movies until recent years.  In what could be considered one of the most stirring period films ever produced, Lincoln gets far more right than it does wrong--historically speaking that is.  

The movie reveals moments of political upheaval, moral ambiguity, uncertainty about race relations, the extreme costs of war, and the encompassing mission of Union embracing broader freedom.  What is there not to like?  While no historical film will ever be perfect, I found little room for complaint as I watched the movie opening night.  As I witnessed the drama unfold that evening, I remained as attentive to the audience as I did the screen.  The moviegoers were transfixed and even highly emotional--especially in the deeply-moving final moments of the film.  As people sat in awe at the end, one could simply tell by looking into their faces that they gained some new appreciation or insight into the times.  This cinematic power, so it would seem, was not enough to impress a number of Civil War scholars.  

In the weeks since the movie's release, I have been carefully reading numerous historian's reviews, articles, and reflections on Lincoln.  For the most part, I have found their comments more disconcerting than reassuring.  With the exception of some historians such as Allen Guelzo and Harold Holzer, many others seem completely removed from the fact that films such as this serve as a platform for expanding general audience's knowledge about the time period.  Let me use a story from the classroom to make a point.  When one of my undergraduate students makes a classroom discussion point based off a movie they saw, I do not crush their preexisting notions.  I build upon them.  Granted, some critiques are valid and all historical pictures should be scrutinized to varying degrees, but movies such as these cannot be all things for all people--especially historians.  Nor can they cover all important aspects of the past.  Rather than building upon the many merits of the film, some historians seem bitter at Spielberg that he chose to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin's book rather than their own.  I would like to echo the sentiments of fellow blogger Keith Harris in telling some of our colleagues to take a chill pill.

Still, I take issue with a number of the criticisms lobbed against the film, finding many of them nit picky and particular.  First, the usual and obvious--complaints that have little bearing or credence: Grant was too tall, uncommon curse words used, Lee was too chubby, Lincoln never slapped his son, etc.  I even read one particularly angry review on Jacobin that claimed, "Lincoln is not a movie about Reconstruction, of course; it’s a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people. And that’s exactly the point: this is not a movie about the long process of reuniting the country or black freedom."  I find this comment exceptionally out of place and demeaning, especially since Lincoln lost his life in the wake of the 13th Amendment and a war to end slavery.  That, by God, counts for something.  I have trouble buying into the "Lincoln was a racist" argument that so many uninformed critics proclaim.  That said, Lincoln's uncertainties about race relations, I believe, are made clear in a conversation his character has with black maid Elizabeth Keckley:

"I...I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley.  Any of you. You’re ...familiar to me, as all people are.  Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know."
This argument leads me to the ongoing debates about emancipation and self-emancipation.  For decades, Lincoln was deemed the "Great Emancipator" who ended slavery single-handedly.  This mentality is obvious in the late nineteenth century Emancipation Monument in Washington.  The newer school of thought, largely promoted by historian Barbara Fields, claims that Lincoln and Federal soldiers did not liberate slaves, but slaves liberated themselves in the form of escape, sabotage, exodus, enlistment, and the abolition movement.  I have always found the truth on this matter to be found somewhere in the middle.  Emancipation was a collaborative endeavor in which slaves, politicians, soldiers, advocates--and yes, Lincoln--were responsible.  No one person or entity should be given full credit for this achievement.  The end of American slavery required decades of toil, hundreds of thousands of lives, and many political and social debates.  Historians would help themselves by recognizing that Lincoln hopes to depict only one of these categories in illustrating this encompassing movement.  Simply because Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison are not depicted does not diminish their role in ending slavery.  Their efforts simply go beyond the confines and timescale of this particular motion picture.  This answer too could be given in response to Eric Foner's criticism that the film does not offer enough background on the larger abolitionist movement.  After all, the film is entitled Lincoln--and it covers only the last four months of his life.  In addition, Thaddues Stevens, played magnificently by Tommy Lee Jones, adequately captured the abolitionist spirit in the absence of other major players in my view.

I have read screenwriter Paul Webb's earlier script of Lincoln, which covered the whole war.  Believe me, Tony Kushner's present version covering a more limited amount of time works much better and is far less cliché.  (A fake scene in that prior script includes Lincoln thanking little Grace Bedell in person for encouraging him to grow his whiskers.  "What do you think, Grace?  Am I improved?" Ugh.)

Connected with the emancipation theme in this film, some contend that the movie lacked African American agency, that the movie depicted blacks as passive players in the historical events and had little consequence on the events engulfing their lives.  I found this claim hard to grapple with.  Let me offer a descriptive passage from the Kushner script to reveal the contrary in the opening scene:

"A terrible battle is taking place; two infantry companies, Negro Union soldiers and white Confederate soldiers, kneedeep in the water, staggering because of the mud beneath, fight each other hand-to-hand, with rifles, bayonets, pistols, knives and fists. There’s no discipline or strategy, nothing depersonalized: it’s mayhem and each side intensely hates the other. Both have resolved to take no prisoners."
I could be wrong, but that scene certainly does not paint United States Colored Troops as being passive observers.  This, the only battle scene in the entire film, shows soldiers of two armies and two races bayoneting and strangling each other in the muddy fields of Jenkins' Ferry, Arkansas.  As two black soldiers describe the fight to Lincoln, one of them also states:

"Now that white people have accustomed themselves to seeing Negro men with guns, fighting on their behalf, and now that they can tolerate Negro soldiers getting the same pay - in a few years perhaps they can abide the idea of Negro lieutenants and captains. In fifty years, maybe a Negro colonel. In a hundred years - the vote."
If this dialogue does not reveal the hopes and aspirations of many black soldiers (and white abolitionists for that matter), I don't know what does.  Elizabeth Keckley's character later reaffirms this when describing the death of her soldier son: "For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?"

Lincoln's conversation with black troops at the beginning of the film leads me to another interesting point: discussion of the Gettysburg Address in the movie.  Here, Lincoln has a conversation with both white and black soldiers.  One of the white soldiers begins to recite the Gettysburg Address, apparently trying to impress his commander.  Many historians and reviewers alike found this moment awkward and poorly placed.  I can tell you, however, this small scene offered important context to casual viewers.  My example: I offered extra credit to my students who saw this film.  They had to write a one page reflection on the movie to receive this credit.  To my surprise, this scene appeared time and time again in their papers.  Apparently, the scene was among their favorites.  The moment was significant for two reasons: 1) It offered them a sense of the setting, allowing them to recognize that this war had been raging for a long time and that this pivotal Pennsylvania battle was in the past.  2) The Gettysburg Address thematically sets the stage for the rest of the film, especially regarding the 13th Amendment.  With this speech and law, Lincoln was vindicating the notion that the American people had to live up to their founding ideals.  I found it just slightly amusing that my nineteen-year-old students could come to some of these conclusions when other reviewers with advanced degrees did not.  Most of my students also said they planned to purchase the film once it was released on DVD.  Yes, college students are going to buy a movie about a piece of legislation.  We aren't in Kansas anymore.

Other historical critics grieve over the fact that the aftermath and legacies of the war were not explained more in-depth.  I urge them once again merely to look at the title of the film.  Reconstruction is not the focus of the film and, from a cinematic standpoint, nor should it be.  This point is echoed by Lincoln's character himself as he is attempting to negotiate peace at Hampton Roads: 

"We ain’t here to discuss reconstruction, we have no legal basis for that discussion. But I don’t want to deal falsely. The Northern states’ll ratify, most of ‘em. As I figure, it remains for two of the Southern states to do the same, even after all are readmitted. And I been working on that."
But ultimately, Lincoln never had the opportunity to finish this work at length, as we all know.  The historical oversight of the tragedies of Reconstruction should not be taken as an historical affront (as some have perceived it), but rather a recognition of the limits of cinematic scope.  Should this two and a half hour film of dialogue been thirty minutes longer?  Writers, teachers, and even battlefield interpreters can make historical "big picture" transitions with only a sentence or two.  To pull it off Hollywood style is not as simple an alternation.  Hopefully, someday Hollywood will bounce back from Gone With the Wind and we will finally receive a better dramatic depiction of post-war America.  Lincoln was simply not the venue for this.

Directly correlating with Reconstruction and scope is the idea of Reconciliation.  Other scholars claim that the movie repeats the misleading themes of reunion between North and South via depictions of Appomattox and Lincoln's Second Inaugural.  My question?  What other option did Spielberg have?  Dramatically speaking, it was important to acknowledge that a war was still ongoing.  Secondly, these two events did in fact happen.  These depicted instances aren't The Birth of a Nation sentimental, racially-charged fictions.  Lee and Grant did tip hats at Appomattox.  Or did Bruce Catton make that up?  It's not Lincoln's or Spielberg's fault that post-war leaders didn't live up to the war's promises.  Let's face it:  Movies like this (must) end on an inspirational note.  I found the ending neither choppy or inappropriate.  Lincoln's Second Inaugural is applicable to nearly any struggle of any time.  Just maybe Spielberg wanted the audience to make their own conclusion.  How can we today achieve "a just and lasting peace?"

I think one very fair criticism of the film comes from historian Jim Downs, who claims that no explanation was made in the film to separate the moral, economic, or military reasonings for the abolition of slavery.  Indeed, most northerners came to accept emancipation as a war aim to weaken the Confederacy but were far from welcoming former slaves as their equals.  Characters in the movie hint at this contradiction but it is never explained at length--especially for Lincoln himself.  This is a point that could feasibly have been incorporated within the movie's confines.  This lack of context is not disastrous, however.

I look to the past as well as the present when I judge a film about historical events.  One particular quote came to mind as I was writing this article.  The phrase comes from film critic Lincoln Kirstein of Film Magazine as he reviewed Gone With the Wind in 1939:  “History has rarely been told with even an approximation of truth in Hollywood because the few men in control there have no interest in the real forces behind historical movements . . . . Gone With the Wind deserves our attention because it is an overinflated example of the usual false movie approach to history.”  Can such a claim be made against Spielberg in this case?  I wholeheartedly think not.  In fact, we receive a more intimate view of this "historical movement" on film than ever before. 

To make another point, let us quickly reflect upon another Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan.  Yes, I could complain about the inaccurate length of Omaha Beach, the supposedly blind adoration of the WWII generation, and the failure to acknowledge Nazi atrocities.  But I don't.  I do not do this because I realize that successful and powerful movies can often serve as a stepping stone to further education of the past.  Saving Private Ryan gave birth to millions of WWII History buffs and allowed for subsequent miniseries that created even more enthusiasts.  Does not Lincoln hold that same potential?  These are forces of history and culture we cannot underestimate.  Every once in a while, our society truly gains something from a movie.  Lincoln is the film so many Civil War enthusiasts have been waiting for--one which will hopefully revive interest among the general public and encourage them once again to get in touch with their roots.  All we have to do is give it a chance.

All in all, there is more to be impressed with in Lincoln than there is to be angered or frustrated by.  Historians should judge the film more so by what the movie depicts, not what it omits.  As I have already stated, historical motion pictures cannot be all things for all people--especially when they tackle an icon as large and enduring as Abraham Lincoln.  This is not your average Civil War flick but it is definitely one of the best.  One scene from the film remains especially vivid in my mind, as politician Schuyler Colfax says of the 13th Amendment, "This isn't usual....this is history."  I thought much the same about this production as a whole.  The movie presents we historians a stunning opportunity to broaden understandings of the people and issues of the 1860s and how they remain highly relevant 150 years later.  The question is:  Do we all realize it?

See also: Spielberg Comes to Gettysburg


  1. Jared, nicely done. I appreciate the time, care and thought you put into this.

  2. Thank you for your perfect summation of the film. Having visited the IMDB boards (as always, at my peril) it is a relief to have the film placed in context and I could not agree more with you that this movie is not in itself an end, but rather a starting point for America to reflect on the struggles and achievements upon which it has been built and should never forget.