Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Spielberg’s Lincoln: Reading the Movie

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on November 24, 2012

I finally got to see Spielberg’s Lincoln, and it very much lives up to the hype — as improbable as that sounds. I plan on going back to see it again once more in the theater; there are undoubtedly a lot of small touches and bits of dialogue that I missed the first time through. I might write a little about my own thoughts on the film, once they’ve simmered a while, but there’s been so much already written about it by smart and perceptive folks that I’d like to point to a few other reviews and comments on the film that I found worthwhile.

Over at Past in the Present, Michael Lynch marvels at Lincoln brought to life in Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance:

It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears into the role.  It’s that his Lincoln is so complete.  We’ve had excellent movie Lincolns before, but I don’t think anyone has captured so many aspects of his personality in one performance.  You get the gregarious raconteur as well as the melancholy brooder, the profound thinker as well as the unpolished product of the frontier, the pragmatic political operator as well as the man of principle.  He amuses the War Department staff with off-color jokes in one scene, then ruminates on Euclid and the Constitution in another.  It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing this side of a time machine, a distillation of all the recollections and anecdotes from Herndon, Welles, and the other contemporaries into one remarkable character study.

This actually sneaked up on me. I was sitting there thinking how awkward and ungainly he looks sitting a horse, and realized — but that’s how Lincoln’s contemporaries actually described him. Then I noticed the flat-footed gait, the gangly posture, all true to the character. Above all, he comes across on the screen as tired, bone-weary, but nonetheless focused and determined. Quite remarkable.

A good bit of attention has been given to the absence of Frederick Douglass in the film, particularly by historian Kate Masur in her review in the New York Times. I’ve mentioned before elsewhere that Douglass and Lincoln did not meet face-to-face during the January/February 1865 timeframe of the film, and that Douglass was never part of Lincoln’s inner circle of advisors at any point. But Hari Jones, Curator of the African American Civil War Museum, goes further, arguing (via Jimmy Price) that working Douglass into the script regardless would serve mainly to please modern sensibilities, while doing considerable violence to the historical record:

As for Masur’s criticism of the film, she admits that it is not historically based. Her criticism is simply a question of interpretive choice, which actually means the historical fiction she prefers for the sake of inclusiveness “even at the margins,” and Douglass is her recommended Negro “at the margins.” Douglass was an advisor to Lincoln many such scholars argue. Yet, to be fair to Masur, she only said he attended the inaugural ball in March 1865. Though many scholars assert that Douglass was the leader of the African American community during the war, he was not. Douglass was the editor of a journal read by more European Americans than African Americans. The young African Americans who fought in the Civil War were more likely to read the journal edited by Robert Hamilton, the Anglo-African, than they were to read the Douglass’ Monthly.
Masur’s interpretive choice would have placed Douglass in the movie because she does not know who else to put in the frame. I would love to know the professor’s opinion on the movie Glory, a grossly historically inaccurate film. My guess is that she probably compliments the director’s interpretive choice because Douglass was included in that film. He attended a fictitious party at the fictitious Shaw mansion in Boston and was engaged in a fictitious inner circle conversation with Robert Gould Shaw about fighting to free the Negroes. Such fiction is justified because it reveals “a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit,” suggesting, of course, that we must make up such stories.
Masur’s criticism of Spielberg’s Lincoln demonstrates a propensity common among many contemporary scholars who seek to provide a view of history (an interpretive choice) that is in fact tokenism. Simply stated if they do not know the Negro who really did something related to the subject matter, they put the most famous Negro of the time, their super Negro, in the story simply to have a Negro in the inner circle. Among contemporary scholars, Frederick Douglass is the affirmative action Negro of the Civil War. I wonder if he would be fond of that dubiously esteemed position.

Kevin was glad to see the ugly political debate behind the 13th Amendment, which presents a view of mid-19th century white Northerners that historians know, but the general public often does not:

What I loved most about the movie was the debate on the House floor.  I’ve said before that one of the most difficult things to teach is the pervasiveness of racism throughout the country at this time.  This comes through clearly in the movie as politicians argue passionately about the consequences of emancipation for white Americans.  Blacks will compete for jobs, marry white women, and perhaps one day even vote.  While the movie effectively captures the importance of ending slavery the discerning viewer will also be left with the challenges that the nation still faces.  For some it may even serve as a reminder of the level of violence witnessed in the north as tens of thousands of southern blacks made their way to cities at the turn of the century in pursuit of a better life.

Kevin also questioned a scene at the very beginning of the film, dialogue between Lincoln and two Union soldiers, one black and one white, that seemed forced and contrived — “ridiculous.” Bjorn Skaptason counters, arguing that the scene, although fictional, is both historically plausible and sets up the larger conflict of the film’s storyline:

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.

Finally, it’s worth everyone’s time to read Harold Holzer’s column over at The Daily Beast, “What’s True and False in ‘Lincoln’ Movie.” Holzer, who served as an historical consultant for the film, was concerned about getting grief for historical errors in the picture. That changed last week, he said, when the director gave the Dedication Day Address at the National Soldier’s Cemetery in 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.” There is no doubt that Spielberg has traveled toward an understanding of Abraham Lincoln more boldly than any other filmmaker before him.
Besides, those soldiers who recite the Gettysburg Address may simply represent the commitment of white and black troops to fight together for its promise of “a new birth of freedom.” Mary Lincoln’s presence in the House chamber may be meant to suggest how intertwined the family’s private and public life have become. The image of “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison in Lincoln’s office may be an omen for his own imminent death in office. In pursuit of broad collective memory, perhaps it’s not important to sweat the small stuff. From time to time, even “Honest Abe” himself exaggerated or dissembled in pursuit of a great cause. Just check out the shady roads he took to achieve black freedom as “imagined” so dazzlingly in the movie. . . .
Sometimes real history is as dramatic as great fiction. And when they converge at the highest levels, the combination is unbeatable.

If you haven’t yet, go see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

Image: Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his cabinet are briefed on the plans for the bombardment of Fort Fisher by Secretary of War Stanton (standing left, played by Bruce McGill).

9 Responses

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  1. Matt McKeon said, on November 25, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Saw the film yesterday. Good post and looking forward to your more “simmered” remarks.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 25, 2012 at 10:02 am

      One surprise that caught me was the couple at the beginning of the film who come to Lincoln to plead their case about ownership of a toll booth outside Jefferson City, Missouri. Some of my relatives were from there, Cole County, and like many folks in that central swathe of Missouri along the river, aligned themselves with the Confederacy. The couple’s obvious discomfort in discussing their own and their neighbors’ political allegiances really was a nice encapsulation of the complexities of the war, both in Missouri and the nation.

      It was also fun the imagine that, if those folks had really existed, my great-grandfather probably knew them. 😉

  2. Bummer said, on November 25, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Andy, great post on “Lincoln,” especially the comments from other historians. Sometimes all that’s left to be said, in the final analysis, are the feelings Andy has experienced and how this interpretation of history impacted you. If all the Civil War community gets is an influx of new interest, so be it. Thanks for posting your thoughts.


    • Andy Hall said, on November 25, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Andy doesn’t go to many movies in the theater, but it’s more rare still that he’s not the oldest person in attendance. Last time that happened was at The King’s Speech.

  3. Patrick Young said, on November 25, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Pat does go to lot of movies, particularly when “dating”, and “Lincoln” was a good ‘un. Like your comment on the film.

    Note to those who love history: Encourage your non-history obsessed friends to see the film as a great entertainment. They’ll want to talk to you about history after they see it.

  4. Brad said, on November 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    My hope is that non-history people will want to read more. However, the book they may pick up is Goodwin’s and the length could be daunting for some.

  5. bedbugsmith said, on December 1, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    The scenes that intrigued me were of the relationships between Lincoln and his immediate family members: how could anyone have known these things?

    • Andy Hall said, on December 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm

      The broad strokes of their relationships are well documented. He was absolutely devoted to Tad, and indulged the boy in all sorts of ways that those around Lincoln thought excessive. Mary did struggle with the death of Willie while her husband forced himself not to go down that path and be crippled by it. They refused to let Robert join the army until the very end of the war. Mary spent vast sums of money on the White House that brought her much criticism. So I think that, in general, the relationships and conflicts depicted in the movie are accurate in that sense.

      The dialogue is made up. Several knowledgeable folks have said that Lincoln would never have slapped Robert as he does in the movie, but that’s hardly certain.

  6. dmfant said, on January 19, 2013 at 12:02 pm

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