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