Spielberg and Lincoln Redux

Lincoln BlingI may go and see Spielberg’s Lincoln again later this afternoon.  Anyone want to join me?  🙂 I’ve done my best to stay on top of what the Lincoln and Civil War communities have had to say.  Here is a rundown:

I shared a few of my own thoughts at the Atlantic.  This is just what I could remember offhand so feel free to include additional reviews in the comments section.  I’ve learned a hell of a lot from reading these folks as well as others.  That said, I am not sure how much I learned about the movie given the rather narrow emphasis on what interpretive threads that were not acknowledged.  Perhaps I would if the movie was somehow fundamentally flawed as a historical document.  No one that I’ve read has said that.  I still find myself agreeing with Timothy Burke, who blogs at Easily Distracted.  Burke’s post was written in response to an early editorial by Foner.

Which is why I think Foner’s response is in some ways just one more front in the long struggle between social history and narrative. I suspect that he and many other historians would find any cinematic representation of any individual playing a key or decisive role in shaping consequential events inadequate–that what we have here is less an argument about particular discrete facts or events or people and more a deeper argument about what really matters in history.

If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.

When we want to say that we don’t think that a given event–or any event–was primarily about powerful or important people and their decisions, then let’s say just that and go from there, accepting the legitimacy of the interpretative argument that follows that statement. Disagreement about interpretation involves but is not reducible to fact, to accuracy, to evidence or to comprehensiveness.

What do you think?

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19 comments… add one
  • Craig L. Dec 14, 2012 @ 6:30

    Who owns the film rights for E. L. Doctorow’s ‘The March’ and why haven’t I seen it in a movie theatre yet?

  • Nick Dec 12, 2012 @ 17:12

    I think the last 8 minutes of the film undid the work the cast and crew had spent the previous two and a half hours humanizing a President that is too often thought of as a marble man. If the movie ended with the shot of the white house butler watching Lincoln go down the steps to the carriage after leaving his gloves, I’d have walked out of the theater saying that it was darn near perfect. Instead we got what I think was a pretty ham-handed ending.

    • Ben Railton Dec 13, 2012 @ 5:50

      Interestingly, I had exactly the same issue with the real-life ending of Schlinder’s List (where the descendants of Schlinder’s Jews walk past his grave alongside the actors who played them). Just seems like Spielberg doesn’t quite trust his own filmmaking and feels the need to add that bit of extra, actual history into the mix–which perhaps speaks to this uneasy balance between history and fiction/art.

  • bummer Dec 12, 2012 @ 12:15

    Bummer’s extended family has had no burning interest in any Civil War flicks, since Ken Burns. However, almost all have asked this student’s opinion regarding books on President Lincoln, after viewing the movie. It definitely proves to Bummer, that any old dog can learn new tricks.

    Enjoy the film,


  • Ben Railton Dec 12, 2012 @ 11:08

    Hi Kevin,

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but have some thoughts on what I see as a key question behind much of this debate:


    Short version is whether pop culture works like this can, as Pat writes in his comment, lead to further investigation and conversation; or whether they tend instead to become our dominant popular interpretations, full stop. It’s not either-or of course, but I think there’s a significant distinction there and a lot at stake in which trajectory occurs more fully (and in what we can do to influence it toward the “further investigation” side). Would love to hear your thoughts!

    • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2012 @ 11:24

      Hi Ben,

      I find myself falling on the side of further investigation, but I suspect that it tells us more about our own values and preoccupation than what can be realistically expected from most people. Most people are not going to pick up a book to follow up their visit to the theater and I am not going to lose any sleep over it. I don’t see how we can judge the worth of this or any movie set in history along those lines.

      Spielberg’s Lincoln will go far in shaping popular perceptions of Lincoln and the Civil War. There is nothing we as historians/educators can do to change that. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this film as a historical interpretation. It may not meet the expectations of those historians listed above, but that can’t be our barometer. The movie leaves the audience with a great deal to ponder and that is good enough for me.

      • AnthonyM57 Dec 12, 2012 @ 14:28

        “There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this film as a historical interpretation.”

        So you’re completely fine with what amounts to an almost wholly fictional portrayal of the Hampton Roads conference in the film?

        Or, as Foner accurately pointed out, how the film “grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact”?

        These aren’t small matters of detail that were changed for dramatic effect, but central features of the plot line that Spielberg got wrong through bad history and bad historical interpretation. It’s actually somewhat reckless that he did it too, because historians work hard to disentangle historical figures like Lincoln from popular myths around them. Spielberg has unfortunately added to those myths by obscuring historical truths with a more appealing fictional story.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2012 @ 14:43

          Hi Anthony,

          Like every Hollywood movie there are moments that come up short and/or get something flatout wrong. I am no more upset with the Hampton Roads scene than I am with the fact that the movie Glory depicts R.G. Shaw with his unit during the pay crisis. In fact, he had been dead for over a month before protests began in the 54th and other black units.

          • AnthonyM57 Dec 12, 2012 @ 15:21

            That’s a weak comparison though. The Hampton Roads conference is a major and central part of the plot in Lincoln. Same with the grossly exaggerated vote on the 13th Amendment.

            Shaw’s presence at that point was just a detail of no major bearing on the plot. Spielberg’s fictional portrayals of the vote’s significance and Hampton Roads would be more in the category of Gettysburg if it had shot Pickett’s Charge as a surprise attack at dawn from behind the Union lines.

            • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2012 @ 15:33

              What exactly is your concern with the Hampton Roads conference? I understand that we don’t know much of what took place apart from what Alexander Stephens tells us in his book.

              As for Shaw’s presence not having any real significance I would suggest that it depends on how you look at the film. The pay crisis scene is used to show how Shaw grew more attached to the men under his command. What is lost, however, is that the men in the 54th and other black units protested for close to a year until Congress adjusted their pay. That could be seen as a major problem. In other words, much of what you are pointing to really is a matter of perspective. Once again, I am not in any way suggesting that historians should not point out where the film deviates from the historical record.

              • AnthonyM57 Dec 12, 2012 @ 15:47

                You should refresh a bit of your history on Hampton Roads then. The connection between it and the 13th amendment actually was little more than coincidence, but the movie turned it into the entire basis of the plot.

                Hunter and Campbell also left extensive written accounts that are more reliable than Stephens. And Lincoln also left many clues about it with what he communicated to the cabinet and Congress a few days later.

                There was no transcript of it but we do have a pretty decent picture of what happened there from the multiple recollections & it was nothing remotely like the depiction of the film. Lincoln even offered them compensation for their slaves. The real impasse that caused it to fail wasn’t the 13th amendment – it was the south’s insistance on being independent, and Lincoln’s insistance on reuniting the two.

                • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2012 @ 15:53

                  Thanks for the advice. I knew that Lincoln offered compensation and even discussed it with his cabinet. Is this really such a major problem? I tend to think not, but like I said, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Thanks for the comment.

                  • Ben Railton Dec 13, 2012 @ 5:53

                    Again, I haven’t seen the film, but I would agree with Anthony in this regard–if the film does portray the conference breaking down over the 13th Amendment, it adds one more layer to the idea that Lincoln was the inspiring, driving force behind ending slavery, full stop. Whereas, as Masur and others have written, many more ardent abolitionists–including, especially, African Americans like Douglass et al.–provided more of that force. Which is to say, if audiences come away from this film seeing Lincoln himself as the ideal abolitionist advocate (rather than, as others have written in other conversations, very mixed in his perspectives, a recent supporter of colonialization efforts, etc), they miss many other, in many ways more inspiring American figures and efforts. Y’know?

                    • Kevin Levin Dec 13, 2012 @ 6:55


                      I’ve written that I think the narrow focus does provide opportunities to look beyond Lincoln’s role in ending slavery. Somehow I keep coming back to the title of this movie. The movie shows that the conference broke down following Lincoln’s demand that the Confederacy surrender unconditionally.

  • GBrasher Dec 12, 2012 @ 7:27

    You see this one? It has me scratching my head the most:


    • Bruce Clary Dec 12, 2012 @ 8:43

      Thanks for sharing this link. I find it an interesting and valuable perspective, not on the Spielberg film itself, but on the current state of the Civil War film in general. I agree with Rael than America could use a good film on the Reconstruction period. The first candidate that comes to mind for a film with an “epic” Antebellum-to-Reconstruction period scope is Margaret Walker’s Jubilee–although I’m not sure Jubilee pushes far enough into the Reconstruction years to satisfy Rael’s demand.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2012 @ 11:25

      I actually read it this morning, but forgot to post it so thanks.

  • longislandwins Dec 12, 2012 @ 7:04

    I have been involved in a few documentaries about immigration issues, one of which was honored at Sundance and two that were shown nationally on PBS. Nothing could lend itself more to “social history” than this issue, yet the films all had to maintain narrative threads and follow an extremely narrow set of individuals to avoid confusing audiences and to maintain interest. One community activist had to stand in for twenty and one family had to serve as an exemplar for tens of thousands.

    The films invariably brought claims that the form itself distorts reality by seemingly ascribing to a small number of people credit for what was accomplished by many. Smart immigrant advocates learned that the films were still useful in engaging the public in the issue, generating empathy with people like those depicted in the films, and leading audiences to ask “how can I find out more about this”.

    Lincoln is the ultimate teachable moment for the Civil War history community. More than 10 million Americans have seen the film already and it will actually be in more cinemas this weekend than it was in during the first month of its run. It would be nice if our historians would develop a public history approach keyed to “You saw ‘Lincoln’ now learn more about Lincoln” and use that as a gateway into expanding the historical imagination of the public around the Civil War and the divisive issues of that time.

    -Pat Young

    • Kevin Levin Dec 13, 2012 @ 3:50

      You said: “It would be nice if our historians would develop a public history
      approach keyed to “You saw ‘Lincoln’ now learn more about Lincoln” and
      use that as a gateway into expanding the historical imagination of the
      public around the Civil War and the divisive issues of that time.”

      I couldn’t agree more. Part of the problem with many of the critiques of the movie is that they are dismissive and even a bit condescending. It’s as if they are saying, “If only Spielberg had read my book.” I would much rather see historians and other commentators think about how the movie points in certain directions of further learning and how teachers and other interested readers can get there. The move offers opportunities for further learning.

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