Review of Lincoln at the Atlantic

Thanks to my editor, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, for cobbling together an appropriate movie review from my last few posts for my column at the Atlantic.  She saved me a couple of hours of work that I don’t have this week.  For this historian and history educator, the amount of coverage that this movie has received is incredibly encouraging.  I’ve heard from folks from all over the country who have seen the movie and who have reported that audiences applauded at the end.  They applauded even in places like Alabama and Mississippi. :-)  Let’s face it, the release of this movie will be remembered as the most important event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  If you are interested in reading more reviews and commentary, I highly recommend Donald Shaffer and Louis Masur.

11 responses... add one

Kevin -

There is something true to your point that historians should be respectful of the artistic goals of cinema productions that deal with historical events.

But I have to ask this – at what point does excessive deference to artistic license begin to do harm to historical memory? Spielberg’s artistic Lincoln is likely to shape popular perceptions of the historical Lincoln for decades to come, and this point has only been reinforced by the film’s publicists and many reviewers who openly portray it as historically accurate.

But therein lies the problem. Spielberg gave us a powerful and compelling “story” about the passage of the 13th amendment and its supposed relation to the Hampton Roads conference. But basic and central facts of that story are – forgive me for being blunt – simply false. That includes the very premise of the story – that there was some sort of dichotomy of choices between either ending slavery or ending the war circa Feb. 1, 1865, and that Lincoln had to navigate this dilemma at risk of losing emancipation itself.

I will go so far as to say that the movie’s depiction of the Hampton Roads conference exceeded the reasonable bounds of artistic license. What we got was a mixture of fiction and fabrication that turned it into a complex ruse connected to the 13th amendment. As the movie portrayed it the Confederates were supposedly on the verge of capitulating except for the amendment. Yet we know from extensive historical scholarship that’s not what happened at all. The peace talks collapsed on the issue of the Union because neither side would budge on whether they would agree to cession of hostilities as two separate nations – the Confederates position – or end the war by submitting to one government – Lincoln’s position.

We also know from scholarly assessment of the 13th amendment that its ultimate passage was never in doubt, just the timing and that by only a month or so. The movie turned it into an uncertain and dramatic climax with great artistic results, but also I’d argue at great harm to popular historical perception to this event.

These are not small quibbles about whether Lincoln ever struck his son, or whether one of the dream sequence stories is apocryphal. These are central and basic plot points on which Spielberg completely fictionalized major events.

Hi Hector,

Thanks for taking the time to write. These are all problems for the film if we interpret narrowly along historical lines. I’ve not once denied this nor am I suggesting that historians ought not to critique movies for their content. What I am trying to get at is that to critique these films based solely on how well it matches up with the facts or current historiography is to miss the point of what filmmakers do.

I have been highly critical of G&G both in terms of content, but more because it’s just a really bad film. In fact, I can’t even tell you what the movie is about. The main roles are little more than caricatures and the battle scenes are as hokey as can be. Yes, I detest that movie. I don’t think it’s fair to compare Maxwell and Spielberg in any respect.

One more point – since both affect memory of the war, it’s fair to compare the reaction to “Lincoln” with that to “Gods and Generals” on the other side.

G&G was widely panned – and probably rightly so – for its campy and forced dialogue scene between Stonewall Jackson and his black cook, and for the slave in Fredericksburg who stays behind to protect her owner’s house. Are the scenes of Lincoln talking to Elizabeth Keckley or the black soldiers subject to the same criticisms? They certainly had that same feel of ridiculousness when I was watching them. But by and large these scenes have gotten a pass, or at most become minor bones to pick, from people who railed against their absurdity in G&G.

Same with the stilted dialogue. G&G was slammed for a script that sounded more like grandiose public orations than normal conversation. Well Spielberg’s Lincoln has this same problem – even worse at times – yet not a peep. Is it really nothing more than whether people agree or disagree with the message of each film that makes them like or hate it? It’s sad to think that & I found both atrocious for the reasons cited, but where was all the talk about “artistic license” when G&G strayed into fiction or used campy dialogue? Instead it was slammed for creating a false perception of the war. So why is Lincoln given a pass now for doing essentially the same thing?

Personally, I didn’t have any complaints about G&G’s accuracy. I just thought it was an awful movie–ham-fisted dialogue, no discernible story arc, unconvincing battle scenes, and wooden characters. I didn’t notice any of G&G’s historical flaws because I was too busy wishing to God the movie would end.

From a standpoint of historical accuracy, I think Gone With the Wind is much, much more problematic than G&G, but I don’t think it matters, because GWTW is a monumental artistic achievement. Good artists can claim artistic license because good fiction can stand or fall independently of its historical accuracy. G&G could have been the most meticulously accurate Civil War film in history, and it wouldn’t have made the experience of viewing it any less unpleasant for me.

The reason I make the G&G comparison is because I felt the same way about many of the characters in Lincoln. Though star-studded, the peripheral characters were all either wooden (Robert Todd Lincoln, all of the cabinet including Seward, Nicolay and Hay, and nearly all of the members of Congress except for Stevens), or they were turned into shallow caricatures of the persons they represented (the entire Blair family, the 3 Confederate commissioners, the 3 lobbyists who were used for comedic relief in a way that trivialized, and the completely cartoonish Democrats who were converted to vote for the amendment).

There are notable exceptions to this (Tommy Lee Jones and Daniel Day Lewis, although his performance was not as flawless as the hype – I found his Lincoln limited by a bad script and somewhat detached from showing any realistic human characteristics). But just the same, Stephen Lang’s Stonewall Jackson was also an interesting character in an otherwise drab G&G.

But by and large it was just as bad as the most awkward and forced cameos of G&G. So was the script in general – Lincoln repeated the fatal G&G flaw of trying to turn normal spoken dialogue into a Shakespearian soliloquy or Pericles’ Funeral Oration. And that is all on top of a historical plot that is wrong and/or falsified in major ways.

The main difference between Lincoln & G&G on a movie rating scale was that Lincoln very obviously had higher production values and better visuals. But that’s about it.

The reason I make the G&G comparison is because I felt the same way about many of the characters in Lincoln.

They are a few undeveloped characters in Lincoln, but nothing that even remotely approaches the lack of character development in G&G. The other thing that Lincoln has going for it is a dynamite script with a clear focus.

I also liked Lang’s portrayal of Jackson in G&G. He definitely managed to bring home some of Jackson’s eccentricities. The problem is that he is lost in the movie.

GWTW’s historical inaccuracy doesn’t matter because it “is a monumental artistic achievement”? I’m hoping you don’t exactly mean what you say. Triumph of the Will was also a towering artistic achievement. But if we take art seriously, we can’t strip away the communicative content. Triumph of the Will was a great artistic achievement — and a triumph of racist, chauvinistic propaganda. its creator deserved an Oscar and a bullet in the back of her neck at the end of WWII.
GWTW is a far more grave example of historical distortion in the service of racist ideology than “Lincoln,” because it has colored and distorted America’s view of Reconstruction for decades. In fact, it is fair to say that insofar as most Americans have any understanding of Reconstruction at all, it is that portrayed in this Klan promoting film.
Which is simply to say, in the context of Spielberg’s movie, that the primary issue should be what the film is saying. If it is artistically ineffective, it may not matter. But the greater the effectiveness of a work of authorship, the more serious are its distortions.

I’ve very much enjoyed your thoughts on the film, Kevin, as well as those of the various other historians and scholars who have weighed in.

I guess one thing I would add, and it’s not about the film itself but the marketing/publicity (although it’s pretty hard to separate such things out in this era of the internet), is that I wish Spielberg, Kushner, Goodwin, et al would make the same case as you have about the difference between what filmmmakers and what historians do. Much of the time, it has felt to me that they’re trying to conflate the roles instead, to argue for their film _as history_, when doing so not only sets up the critiques you’ve highlighted, but also does a disservice to what filmmakers actually can do (and what this film does pretty well).

Thanks,
Ben

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