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.

Spielberg also chose to build his story around emancipation rather than the preservation of the Union. Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln as the central actor in this drama, making the president worthy of his place in our collective memory without mythologizing him. Indeed, one of the movie's strengths is that it depicts Lincoln as one player (albeit an important one) in that not-so-well-oiled machine that is the legislative process. Lincoln does his best to help to steer the amendment through Congress with the help of Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed persuasively by Tommy Lee Jones. We see the messiness, but we also get a sense of Lincoln's and Stevens's sincere interest in ending slavery once and for all.

Eric Foner recently criticized the film because it failed to show that it was the abolitionists, and not Lincoln, who were the driving forces behind the Thirteenth Amendment. Kate Masur also takes issue with what she sees as a narrow understanding of how emancipation came about. For Masur, more attention could have been given to the activities of slaves in freeing themselves and to free blacks in the nation's capital. The criticisms of both historians should come as no surprise given their recent scholarship. Foner recently published a wonderful biography of Lincoln and slavery and Masur's book on emancipation in Washington, D.C., is a must read.

I am not so concerned about these supposed shortcomings. It is not Spielberg's duty to fill us in on the whole history of emancipation and the black population of D.C. But the spirit of self-emancipation comes through clearly in the opening battle scene (as well as that silly scene where Lincoln is chatting with both black and white soldiers about the war).

I am more concerned about Spielberg's overall portrait of Lincoln, which is tied directly to the timeframe of the movie. We see Lincoln at the end of a very long—and at times confusing—process that extended back to his early years, in which he expressed views about African Americans that may be shocking for some of us to hear today. But Spielberg doesn't give us any sense of these earlier views. At one point in the movie, Elizabeth Keckley asks Lincoln what he thinks African Americans should do once they are freed. If she had asked that question two years earlier Lincoln likely would have advised her that colonization was their best option.

In contrast, I loved the debate on the House floor. As a high school teacher, I've found it challenging to get across the pervasiveness of racism throughout the country at this time. Spielberg accomplishes this very well, showing politicians as they argue passionately about the consequences of emancipation for white Americans: the competition for jobs, the spread of interracial relationships, and the possibility that black people will be allowed to vote. This scene is not only great drama: It ensures that the discerning viewer will be left pondering the challenges the nation still faces, 150 years after slavery ended.

This is the real value of a film like Lincoln. Spielberg may not get every historical detail right, but it is impossible not to watch this movie as commentary on our own political challenges. It shows us that the only way to get anything done in Washington is through compromise, but that this need not preclude embracing moral principles. Even when Spielberg misses the mark, he does what a filmmaker should do: He recreates the spirit of an era and inspires us to think more deeply about the myths and realities of a hugely important time.