Historians Need to Give Steven Spielberg a Break

Hollywood will never make a movie that satisfies professional scholars. But as a work of art, Lincoln offers plenty to admire.


The director poses with leading man Daniel Day-Lewis at the Lincoln premiere in Hollywood. (Reuters)

Historians are stakeholders in anything that attempts to 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 also feel a strong need to educate the general public and point out interpretive shortcomings in popular films.

Over the past few days I've read numerous reviews of Spielberg's Lincoln 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.

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. 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 filmmakers and the limitations they face. In short, we need to stop critiquing them as if they were something they are not. They are artists, not historians.

We go to the movies to be entertained and transported to a different time and place. That's easier said than done when you've spent the better part of the last 15 years reading and writing about the period depicted in a film. After so much research, we historians look for complexity and a certain attention to detail that reflects a careful consideration of the past. I certainly did this while watching Lincoln, but at the same time, we would do well to remember that when we watch films about other subjects, we're able to set aside that kind of analysis and respect the filmmaker's creative decisions.

Take Lincoln's opening battle scene. When I first heard that Spielberg was planning on making a moving about the Civil War, I imagined an opening battle scene that approached the realism of Saving Private Ryan. Well, we got an opening battle scene, but it did not approach the scale of his recreation of the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

We have to imagine that Spielberg considered such famous battles as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh. I have no doubt that he could have translated any of these to the big screen. Instead, Spielberg throws his viewer into the middle of a nameless close-quarter fight within the lesser-known Battle of Jenkins' Ferry. There are no wide shots of carefully formed units waiting for orders to march into battle, and no close-ups of famous commanders behind the lines.

What Spielberg wanted his audience to see was the brutality and hatred that defines any bloody civil war. At times, the loyalties of the men are indistinguishable from one another (except for the African Americans, assuming you already knew that they fought for the Union). The mud functions as a metaphor for the ugliness of war, and perhaps even a war that has lost any sense of meaning for the two parties. The United States flag may be prominent in this scene, but the viewer is left wondering what the struggle was all about.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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