Movie fans are no doubt aware that the Academy Award nominations came out today (Thursday the 10th) Leading the pack in total number of nominations with twelve is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” including ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis’ and ‘Best Director.’
I’ve seen it. It was an impressive film, with high quality acting and gripping political drama.
The nominations give me an excuse to provide another review for our readers here at Skeptic North! What might be relevant for skeptics with regards to the film “Lincoln”? Was it historically accurate? Or was Mr. Spielberg spinning tall tales of the myth of Lincoln?
Full disclosure, I am out of date when it comes to American civil war history. There was a time when I knew the timeline of the civil war, emancipation, and reconstruction by heart, but that was years ago. However in taking a quick look around at what other historians are saying, what I myself remember, I’d like to synthesize that collection of knowledge for our readers who might be wondering.
First things first, normally I’d always do my best to prevent spoilers from getting out, but honestly, if I need to protect you from learning how this movie ends….we have a bigger problem than historical inaccuracies in the movie.
But let’s start with my overall verdict. History buffs should rest easy. This is an entertaining and reasonably accurate portrayal of Lincoln and the ordeal of passing the 13th amendment. Potential problems, like portraying Lincoln like some kind of enlightened pious saint are avoided in this film. Politically astute, (scheming some might argue) this Lincoln is more a political genius than enlightened. There’s an element of megalomania in Daniel Day Lewis’s performance that sort of fits the historic reality.
The film is (loosely) based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The primary focus in on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment early in his second term before the civil war ends. His concern in the film is that if the war ends, the emancipation proclamation will be rescinded. The central drama of the film is that the South has sent peace negotiators which would threaten Lincoln’s support in congress to get the amendment passed.
Let’s consider a few things that might rankle historians. Aside from the typical historic bloopers that are always present in films like this (at one point Lincoln using a crank to raise the flag, he should have used ropes) … There is a lot of invented dialogue in the film. Lincoln says a few progressive lines that there is no record of him ever saying (or really any reason to believe he would say) there’s no mention whatsoever of Lincoln’s disastrous vice president and racist drunk Andrew Johnson. The 13th amendment is also presented as Lincoln’s invention, this of course is incorrect. the Thirteenth Amendment when it was proposed in 1864—was from the Women’s National Loyal League, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (At the time Lincoln did not support it.)
Additionally, what historians have known for some time is that slavery was being defeated by former slaves. As General Sherman carved a bloody path through the South, liberated slaves were seizing plantations, dividing land, working for themselves and building communities. Politicians might have been labouring to pass laws in the halls of power, but irrespective of what they came up with, self-freed slaves were already taking control of their own destinies.
And of course, former slaves like Frederick Douglass and others were lobbying and appealing for freedom long before the 13th amendment. The film’s biggest omission in my opinion is not including Douglass.
In fact, what’s irritating is that in a movie about emancipation there are only three or four speaking roles for black characters. There’s a couple ways to interpret this, one is that Spielberg crafted a film for Lincoln fans to watch and feel good about themselves and he didn’t think to mention (or perhaps was ignorant of) the more nuanced history of emancipation and the role black people played in it. Another way is that Spielberg was crafting a film about the political powerbrokers of emancipation and considered that narrative to be his primary focus for the film. The latter is probably the more charitable interpretation than the former.
Perhaps as a way of acknowledging this, there is a scene early in the film where Lincoln is greeting some Union troops, two black soldiers and two white soldiers approach him. One of the black soldiers is very complimentary and quotes lines to Lincoln from the Gettysburg Address (I’ll come back to that in a moment) however the other black soldier remarks to Lincoln some of the inequalities black soldiers have to face compared to their white counterparts. A scene like this goes a long way to remind enlightened movie goers that despite Lincoln’s good graces, the North and Union army were still racist and discriminatory.
Another history blooper occurs in this scene. Two of the soldiers quote lines from the Gettysburg Address, this is quite a stretch. The idea that soldiers or civilians would have memorized lines from the Gettysburg Address is very dubious. The fame of the speech, actually didn’t develop until after Lincoln’s death and it wasn’t until the 20th century that it became well known amongst history books and such.
Additionally, the premise for Lincoln’s hurry to pass the 13th amendment is the “threat” of peace breaking out, has been criticized as unrealistic in the sense that the war ending in early 1865 was historically inaccurate. (The war finally ended in April of 1865) I personally think that’s a debateable point. However the drama in the film about Southern diplomats visiting Washington before the vote on the 13th (which would have undermined the vote) was never a real issue as portrayed in the film.
Arguably, this is a surprisingly accurate film with a few cringe moments for history buffs. Of course, even considering everything I pointed out, “Lincoln” is still light years ahead of the History Channel or “Gladiator” in terms of historic accuracy. It’s also a hell of a better movie/entertainment.
I recommend it.