Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner Are Not Historians

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?

Beyond nitpicking specific moments such as the roll call in the House or whether Lincoln ever slapped Robert, my fellow historians have pointed out the lack of attention on women and abolitionists as well as the free black community in Washington, D.C.  I could go on and on.  Do any of these critiques help us to better understand the movie?  No.  They simply reinforce what we already know, which is that Hollywood will never make a movie that satisfies the demands of scholars.  Nor should it.  In his review of the movie for The Daily Beast, Harold Holzer shares a few remarks from Spielberg’s speech at last week’s Dedication Day Address at Gettysburg:

For a few weeks, I haven’t known quite how I would respond. But yesterday at Gettysburg, Steven Spielberg provided the eloquent answer. “It’s a betrayal of the job of the historian,” he asserted, to explore the unknown. But it is the job of the filmmaker to use creative “imagination” to recover what is lost to memory. Unavoidably, even at its very best, “this resurrection is a fantasy … a dream.” As Spielberg neatly put it, “one of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that history must avoid.”

As historians we need to be much more sensitive to the artistic goals of filmmaker and the limitations that those who choose to focus on historical subjects face.  In short, we need to stop critiquing filmmakers for something they are not.  They are artists, not historians.  Finally, with all of the focus on the content of the film the historical community is missing a unique opportunity to reflect on how people connect with their nation’s past.

14 comments… add one
  • Sarah Nov 27, 2012 @ 7:35

    On the contrary, I do not consider Goodwin an academic historian so much as a popular historian, which has completely different standards regarding scholarly vigor and accuracy (demonstrated by her plagiarism issues and her response that “The larger question for those of us who write history is to understand how citation mistakes can happen” when this shouldn’t be happening for historians ever). In fact, her background is not history at all, and the fact that historians are represented in society by people such as Goodwin and McCollough, who have no academic historical training, says a lot about the field and its relationship with American society.

  • paul Nov 25, 2012 @ 18:51

    I came over here to see if Prof Levin had seen this quote:

    On how Lincoln would have approached Reconstruction had he lived

    “I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn’t take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

    “The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered, and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there’s a good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles, because he meant them. We know that he meant them literally, because he told [Ulysses S.] Grant to behave accordingly.” — as noted here:

    Um, what? Yes, had Lincoln lived, things would have been different, maybe even better, and not just for him. But to argue that the Union failed to “forgive and reconcile with the South” is a howler of the first order. A Southern partisan assassinated Lincoln and I suspect many victorious sides would introduced the losers to the idea how actions have consequences (the treaty that ended WWI comes to mind).

  • Pat Young Nov 25, 2012 @ 15:53

    I agree that while the original idea for the film may have come from the book “Team of Rivals”, that is certainly not the theme of the movie. Seward is shown extensively in the film, but he is hardly a rival. None of the other cabinet members get much face-time at all.

    Kushner says he spent 5 years working on the screenplay, which may be more time than Goodwin spent on her book.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 16:04

      Goodwin has said she spent 10 years working on Team of Rivals.

  • Rumford Nov 25, 2012 @ 9:54

    Is Goodwin not a “professional historian” though? She’s been singing nothing but praises about its supposed accuracy for the last few weeks.

    Now I’m not suggesting that either Goodwin or Kushner should remain silent or avoid these claims. I’m just noting that it’s a two way street – if they’re going to put forth and promote an artistic interpretation of Lincoln’s last four months as “historically accurate” then they are directly inviting historians to scrutinize that claim, including on the grounds that we’ve seen so far.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 10:26

      I consider Goodwin to be a historian and I don’t doubt that she is benefiting from a close relationship with the movie. I read her book, but don’t get the sense that the movie was based closely on it. The ‘team of rivals’ theme is not that prevalent; in fact, it is overblown in re: to the Lincoln administration throughout the war.

      You said:

      … if they’re going to put forth and promote an artistic interpretation of Lincoln’s last four months as “historically accurate” then they are directly inviting historians to scrutinize that claim, including on the grounds that we’ve seen so far.

      Who is suggesting otherwise?

  • ari Nov 25, 2012 @ 9:50

    Every scholarly lament/review about Lincoln that I’ve seen has added up to little more than, “How come Spielberg doesn’t know more about my research?” Is this surprising? No. Is it pathetic? I can’t tell for sure, because I don’t do research on pathos.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 10:22

      This is the short and not so sweet version of what I was trying to say. 🙂

  • Rumford Nov 25, 2012 @ 9:36

    Kushner may not be a historian, but that hasn’t stopped him from blathering on at every opportunity about how his script supposedly strives for historical accuracy and how he read thousands of books containing the “latest” in Lincoln scholarship.

    That also means Kushner is at least partially to blame here when the film does lapse into campy unrealistic dialogue or commits errors of historical fact and interpretation. He’s set himself up for it. The film may and should also be evaluated for its “artistic goals.” But when the artist issues an open invitation for historians to weigh in on its accuracy, it’s only reasonable to expect that the will, and that not all assessments will be glowing.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 9:47

      Why shouldn’t he? Kushner probably did spend a good deal of time reading historical sources. That, of course, doesn’t make him a historian.

      I am not suggesting that historians should not be critical of the film. What I am pointing out is that commentary focused on what was left out or not what was sufficiently emphasized as well as minor errors make the mistake of treating the film as if it is history. As Spielberg notes any film professing to tell as story about the past is an imaginative process that goes beyond historical sources. It’s first and foremost a work of the imagination.

  • Diane Miller Sommerville Nov 25, 2012 @ 7:25

    I was rather pleasantly surprised at the placement of women conspicuously in the political discourse of the politics of abolition and peace. Noteworthy is the presence of female family members in the parlor when Lincoln visited the Blair household to discuss the Confederate peace mission. The Blair women were politically informed and participated, fictionally or not, in the discussion. Also, Spielberg placed women in the gallery of the House, characterizing them as invested in the political process.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 7:42

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks for the comment. In the end, I agree with Don Shaffer who pointed out that it’s not enough for historians to point out what the movie failed to include. They at least need to take a step in the direction of the filmmaker’s world and show how it would advance their interpretive and cinematic goals. To do it effectively involves taking off the traditional/scholarly role of historian.

      I tend to agree with you re: the placement of women, especially with the portrayal of Mary Todd, who tends to come off as a mentally unstable. Sally Field did an excellent job as did the woman who played Keckley.

  • Bummer Nov 25, 2012 @ 6:33

    What’s left to say. Great flick! Everyone’s analysis is spot on. Bummer was anticipating a historically correct(or close), adaptation of Lincoln, while being entertained. Spielberg’s take on the President and the time, was just that, a great period piece of the man and the events surrounding his frustration and political trials. This film will entice others to explore the period and the man, if that’s the only benefit, so be it.

    This Bummer will view “Lincoln” again, it’s just the type of film he has longed for.


  • Pat Young Nov 25, 2012 @ 5:41

    Very good point. I might add that just about every book I have read by a professional historian has the same problems of scope and inclusiveness as the film. Since my own research focuses on the role of immigrant communities in the war (foreign-born made up a quarter of Union troops and vastly outnumbered African American soldiers), I always look to see how this crucial element of Union victory is handled by an author and, most typically, it is so ignored that it isn’t even mentioned in the indexes of these volumes.

    The film tells a story, historians do too even if they eschew narrative.

    The film works excellently as a work of art, and it has inspired many of my friends who have seen it to pick up a book on Lincoln and to do online research as well. It has given a whole coterie of “Lincoln scholars” an shot at the sort of major media appearance they rarely ever get. Many more people are learning about this facet of our history because of the film.

    A woman I know who would have annoyed me with talk of Snookie on Thanksgiving, instead was discussing the passage of the 13th Amendment and the depths of racism in America.

    The Civil War Sesquicentennial had not penetrated into the popular consciousness until now. My friends saw the news reports on the reenactors firing on Fort Sumter, yawned and said “Oh, a lot of guys in costumes shooting fake bullets. Stop living in the past.” Most assumed the 150th ended last year. When I’ve told them that there is great programing on scholarship about the war and emancipation on C-Span 3, they look at me quizzically and ask “There is a C-Span 3?”.

    The film “Lincoln” is the central event of the Sesqui, and unlike the important aspects of the Centennial (denial of accommodations to a black Centennial Commissioner, ignoring slavery, the infamous Bull Run reenactment) it will be recalled fondly by most Americans. It will endure, be reshown for decades on whatever replaces TV, and be a touchstone for coming generations trying to understand race, American identity, and democratic functions.

    Sorry to say this, but while our fellow Americans will but little note nor long remember most of of the scribblings of historians in their specialized fields of inquiry that are poured out for the 150th, they will internalize this artist’s rendering because it is beautiful and terrible, and because it speaks to who we have become as a people.

    Reenactors and historians, both of whom I love, should see the film “Lincoln” not as a rival interpretation to be trashed, but as creating a teachable moment to engage the American public.

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