Over the last several days, I have been receiving a lot of notes asking if I had any comments on Steven Spielberg's, Lincoln. As it turns out - I do. Since Lincoln's release I have determined that there are roughly two sets of reviewers that approach films contending with historical interpretation. Generally speaking, and I am certain that you will find exceptions to my sweeping strokes here, film critics tend to review with an eye toward performance and the portrayal of humanity against the often larger-than-life nature of the story's protagonists and secondary characters. They also are likely to judge whether the filmmaker captured the essence of the period in question: lighting, scenery, interiors, and other such crucial visual elements allowing the movie patron a genuine glimpse of said period. Historians, on the other hand, will be on the lookout for historical content and context. They will be sure to point out moments of accuracy and other scenes that are well...off the mark or distorted. Of course, you should probably not be surprised to find historians' comments critical of what did and did not make the historical cut.
I generally wear both hats when I see a period piece - this was indeed the rule when I saw Lincoln on opening day at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome. I tend to agree with film critics' assessment of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and other actors' performances. Day-Lewis portrays an all too human Abraham and Field a convincingly troubled Mary - I expected as much from such tremendously talented actors. I also have to agree with historians such as Eric Foner for noting the lack of context when it came to the abolition movement broadly defined. And I found Megan Kate Nelson's discussion of the awkward dialogue between the film's black and white characters insightful. As of yet, I have not come across anyone discussing self-emancipation - but I am sure it will come up eventually.
But my thoughts have moved in a different direction since I saw Lincoln. I think of the weeks leading up to the film - the anticipation was really something to behold in the Civil War Internet world. From all the social media whoop-dee-do emerged a short and hardly seen interview with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis - a Q&A following a pre-screening of the film at...you guessed it, a film school. Spielberg especially was sensitive to the fact that he was presenting a very narrow view of a vast historical subject. He equated it (and I am paraphrasing here) to looking through to the other side of a fence through a tiny nail hole. His intention was to depict a sliver of history - not the history. I will admit (as have my colleagues) that the opening scene with Lincoln in conversation with Union soldiers was hard to watch...forced and uncomfortable - but perhaps this was a cinematic device used intentionally to set an uneasy backdrop for a story that ultimately asks some difficult and hard to define questions about the nature of freedom. I will also admit that I have been harshly critical myself of historical films that get it wrong (i.e. Gettysburg, Gods and Generals). Lincoln does not get it wrong, it simply takes on a narrow scope. I will have to say that the film - in terms of the segment of history it intended to present (as opposed to the history that some might expect) - was a smashing success. Spielberg's mission was to provide a snapshot of the trying problems in early 1865 concerning a piece of legislation and to understand one man's struggles confronting them. It was a film about a man, his close circle of contemporaries, and an event, not about a movement. Steven Spielberg is admittedly not operating under any pretense that he is an historian, so I suspect that historians should not judge his film using our own rigorous standards, but rather, examine the film for its cultural import in the 21st century. Why is a film about Abraham Lincoln so important today? Are we still struggling with unresolved issues? Are political, racial, sectional, and cultural divisions embedded in our collective body politic? (hint: yes) Perhaps this is why Spielberg's films so resonates with such a vast audience.
As it is, the film can work as an inspirational stepping off point. I have connected with a number of people who have less than a passing interest in Civil War history who are now intrigued by the era, by Lincoln, and by the war in general. I even hear tell that books have been purchased. I call that a win.