Monday, November 26, 2012

Harris on Lincoln: A Review (of sorts)

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 Historians, on the other hand, will be on the lookout for historical content and context.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 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 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.



  1. Thank you for this critique of Lincoln, a film I was totally amazed by. I had been curious as to your point of view for obvious reasons. I have been listening to the unabridged audiobook A Team of Rivals and used that as a basis to judge what I had seen. It gave me a background on which to view the film against. I will have to see it again and keep in mind the main players. I appreciated the films unflinching look , brief as they were, of the horror that was the Civil War.

  2. Some most trenchant observations here, in particular recalling Spielberg's history through the picket fence analogy. I'd forgotten that: I did watch that Q&A session while I was in New Orleans.

    Never has the time been better portrayed, I think. One feels all the real historical figures, if they could see this film, would approve of it, although many of them now might shudder at the positions they held then, and how history must therefore perceive them. A useful object lesson for public figures acting out in the present.

    I wish that Spielberg had broadened his point of view, though. I think it may be too narrowly focused. I'd have preferred he'd omitted the opening scene, and ended with Lincoln leaving the presidential mansion for Ford's Theatre, and taken that time to broaden what remains. However, as I've also mentioned, perhaps when we get the inevitable extended DVD version, we'll find more scenes that provide additional lift.

    I like this movie quite a bit, but I find I can't be terribly objective about it because I'm too emotionally attached to the history. I personally like to see the movie, but that doesn't necessarily mean I think it will work in the same way with those who aren't already fairly deeply immersed in the Civil War era.

    But what eludes me in your review are answers to these questions: Did you personally _like_ the film? Was it what you had expected it would be? If not, did you like it anyway?

  3. I didn't realize you owned two hats but you wore them both well in this review.

  4. This might be the best review I've read for the film. Thank you.

  5. Thanks all - for your comments and kind words!