Skip to main content

"Lincoln" and films about history

I saw Lincoln this past weekend and really enjoyed it. I'm not much of a Spielberg fan. But he was in top form here, as was the entire cast and crew. Daniel Day Lewis is as great as everyone has said. As a piece of entertainment I give it high marks. But in reading a lot of critiques of the movie from a history perspective, it seems either incomplete or out of focus, perhaps both.

I'm a bit torn as to whether that's just a minor inconvenience (likely a result of the nature of the medium) or a big flaw that detracts from almost undeniably effective things the movie does well. On the one hand, if you set out to make a movie about history and the people that helped shape that history, you have some sort of obligation to make it accurate (unless you're making something like Inglorious Basterds). On the other hand, you aren't making a documentary, which I think bears a higher standard for accuracy and scope (something like Ken Burns' Civil War documentary). In the end, when you make a studio, non-documentary movie, you are making a piece of entertainment.

Just because it's entertainment doesn't mean it can't be about important ideas/themes. The Dark Knight Trilogy does both, which is why I love it so much. And this is why I liked Lincoln so much, despite it's flaws from a history perspective. Yes, passing the 13th Amendment during the lame duck session wasn't necessary. They could have passed it in the next session when Republicans had the votes. No, Lincoln was not the sole arbiter of that Amendment nor the abolishment of slavery, which the film's focus kind of implies.

But what worked for me were the ideas behind the things being debated and fought over. Those ideas are self evident in the film, but powerful nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens, the "radical" abolitionist. I identified the most with him, being somewhat of an idealist that doesn't always think you have to compromise or push things along slowly. Even though I would side more with Stevens than Lincoln, the character of Lincoln was compelling because there was internal struggle. I sympathized with the challenge he faced. And damn did he have a way with words, words that beautifully conveyed the importance of the ideas being debated. The (spoiler alert) scene at the end which depicts his 2nd inaugural speech had he been able to read it was incredible, almost as tear inducing as the end to The Dark Knight Rises.

So do I sympathize with the people who have serious problems with the way the movie depicts history? Absolutely. But I just don't think you can ask for a whole lot more with this medium. That's not to say I don't think we should try to do so. But as long as studios care about profit I won't hold my breath. Some of the ideas about politics and the focus on Lincoln being somewhat of a singular abolitionist are troubling. But I think it gets the big ideas correct. And people who might not otherwise read about that time in history at least got some exposure to it and were entertained in the process. I don't think too much harm will come of that.