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.
Historians are stakeholders in anything that attempts to tell a story about or represent the past. The vast majority of these stories pass us by innocently enough, but when the most popular Hollywood director makes a movie about Lincoln we watch and listen closely. We don’t just watch, we also feel a strong need to educate the general public and point out interpretive shortcomings in popular films. Spielberg’s Lincoln has certainly opened up the floodgates for Lincoln scholars and Civil War historians. Over the past few days I’ve read numerous reviews by professional historians, both in print and in my circle of social media friends. All of them are informative even if they tend to reflect individual research agendas much more than the movie itself.
I’ve already linked to a few reviews, but for this short post I am going to refrain from doing so because my point is not to put anyone on the spot or even to suggest that criticism of a Hollywood movie as historical interpretation is not welcome. Over the years I have done it myself both on this blog and in print. When there are gross oversights and distortions it is absolutely essential, but at what point do such reviews come down to nothing more than historians once again talking to one another?
Thanks to all of you for the thoughtful comments in response to my posts about Spielberg’s Lincoln [and here] movie. I love to be able to use the blog to share my thoughts, but often your comments are much more interesting. Like some of you I blew off that opening scene in which Lincoln talks with a couple of white and black Union soldiers following the battle scene. After reading Bjorn Skaptason’s comment I now see that as premature. There is much to consider in that scene. Here is his comment:
I have seen the film just once, like you. I might have taken more away from that opening scene, though. I think the battle scene is clearly the U.S.C.T. soldier describing his experience as part of the 2nd Kansas (Colored) in the battle of Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas. Ken is right that there was a hand-to-hand fight there for a couple of guns during a driving rainstorm in a muddy, plowed field. The Second Kansas took no prisoners in that engagement. The soldier then goes on to describe a reasonable transfer scenario wherein he joined the 116th USCT in Kentucky, and now he is standing in front of the commander-in-chief at a wharf in Washington, D.C.
Further, the infantryman is in company with a cavalryman who identifies himself as part of a Connecticut Volunteer regiment (the 5th?). That individual is much more aggressive in challenging Lincoln on the failures of his administration. The infantryman is visibly annoyed by this. There is rich subtext here for historians. The infantryman is a Kansas freedman, escaped from bondage in Missouri, and fighting to destroy slavery. He is thrilled to meet the Great Emancipator. The cavalryman is probably a free born New Englander, obviously well-educated, and committed to a mission of equality that Lincoln is distinctly failing at. He will not let Lincoln get away with empty promises and half measures.
The unspoken conflict between these two soldiers, played out in annoyed sideways glances, foreshadows the conflict of the movie – a conflict between overthrowing slavery on one hand and establishing equal rights on the other. They aren’t the same thing, they weren’t perceived as such at that time, and the movie sets up that nuanced view of the situation in the first scene.
Then the white kids come in, and they are a little goofy, but they give us a chance to see Lincoln pre-visioning his own deification, and not liking it very much. Then everybody leaves to get on their transports that carry them off to their date with Fort Fisher. During a later scene we get to see Lincoln’s reaction to casualty reports from that battle, and we catch a glimpse of people reading long casualty lists in the newspaper. Our proud freedman, caustic cavalrymen, and goofy kids might well be on that list.
It’s a good scene in a good movie, I think.
There is much more to think about here, than in the typical costume balls that serve as Civil War movies.
When I first heard that Spielberg was planning on making a moving about Lincoln one of the first things I imagined was an opening battle scene that approached the realism of Saving Private Ryan. I had never before scene anything like it on the big screen. Well, we got an opening battle scene, but it did not approach the scale or length of his re-creation of the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
We have to imagine Spielberg considering such famous battles as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh. I have no doubt that he could have pulled off such a large-scale battle. Instead, Spielberg throws his viewer into the middle of a nameless close-quarter fight. No wide shots of carefully formed units waiting for orders to march into battle and no close-ups of famous commanders behind the lines. It would have been easy to do, but it would also have been a distraction. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
What Spielberg wanted his audience to see was the brutality and hatred that defines any bloody civil war. There are no battle lines in this scene. At times the national identities of the men are indistinguishable from one another, except for the African Americans, assuming you already knew that they fought for the United States. The mud functions as a metaphor for the ugliness of war and perhaps even a war that has lost any sense of meaning for the two parties. The United States flag may have been prominent in this scene, but the viewer is left wondering what it’s all about.
We go to the movies to be entertained and transported to a different time and place. That certainly happened for me while watching Steven Spielberg’s movie about Lincoln and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. That’s not such an easy thing to do when you’ve spend the better part of the last 15 years reading and writing about the period. Historians look for complexity and and a certain attention to detail that reflects a careful consideration of the past. I certainly did, but at the same time we would do well to remember that these kinds of questions rarely arise when watching films about other subjects.
The film fits neatly into the Civil War sesquicentennial with its emphasis on emancipation as the central problem that must be solved as opposed to the preservation of the Union. Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln as the central actor in this drama and one that certainly deserves an Oscar nomination. He somehow manages to make Lincoln appealing and even worthy of his place in our collective memory without mythologizing him. Indeed, one of the movie’s strengths is that it depicts Lincoln as one player (albeit an important one) in that not-so-well-oiled machine that is the legislative process. Lincoln does his best to help to steer the amendment through Congress with the help of Thadeus Stevens, portrayed persuasively by Tommie Lee Jones. We see the messiness of it all, but we also get a sense of Lincoln’s and Stevens’s sincere interest in ending slavery once and for all.