Taking Hollywood to task

When I wrote my own review of Lincoln, I said this: “You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.”

Based on some of the responses to the movie that have hit the Interwebs since then, I might need to revise that statement.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was the main draw for me, but at least some viewers apparently had different expectations.

I have a tendency to judge all Lincoln-related movies by how convincingly they depict him.  If a film can sell me on its Lincoln, I can overlook any number of other flaws.  Conversely, if I don’t buy the Lincoln, then it’s hard for me to appreciate other strengths a movie might have.  I’ve enjoyed quite a few good Lincoln portrayals over the years, performances that have captured particular aspects of the genuine article—Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, and Sam Waterston are favorites of mine—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody inhabit the role as completely as Day-Lewis.  I didn’t love everything about Spielberg’s film, but what I really wanted to see was Lincoln himself, and I left the theater satisfied.

Some historians have noted the movie’s inaccuracies, which is a perfectly proper thing for historians to be doing.  Other commentators, though, seem less interested in what the filmmakers did wrong as much as they’re interested in what they didn’t do at all.

Over at The Atlantic, for example, Tony Horwitz writes, “I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here’s my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.”  Sure, but it also would’ve made for a completely different film.  Spielberg and Kushner made a conscious decision to focus on the last months of Lincoln’s life.  Including his transformation from a fairly conservative Whig into the man who embraced the Thirteenth Amendment and made public references to limited black enfranchisement would have required not a longer movie, but another one.

Historian Kate Masur, meanwhile, complains that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.…Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.…[I]t reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”  But this isn’t a movie “devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery.”  It’s a movie about the twilight of Lincoln’s presidency.  Any examination of the men who stood at the pinnacle of the American government in the 1860’s is inevitably going to spend most of its time on white men.

William Harris wrote a book about the last months of Lincoln’s second term; I don’t think anyone who would criticize that book for failing to analyze the evolution of Lincoln’s views on race from 1858 to 1865 would get much of a hearing.  Similarly, I think most of us would be quite surprised if a reviewer referred to a novel about Lincoln as “an opportunity squandered” because the book didn’t deal with African-American life in nineteenth-century Washington.

Yet Masur ultimately concludes that the move is “an opportunity squandered.”  That sort of reaction is legitimate when it comes to major museum exhibits or interpretation at an important historic site, since those are educational institutions which can and should try to tell definitive stories about their subjects.  Movies shouldn’t have to be so authoritative.

We seem to hold filmmakers to a lower standard when it comes to getting the facts straight, but a higher one when it comes to deciding what to include and what not to include.  The reason, I think, is because movies reach so many people and leave such an impression.  We envy filmmakers their audience and their influence, and since we know how many stories about the past need telling, we want filmmakers to use the tremendous resources at their disposal to tell the ones that matter to us, as well as to tell their own stories well.

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1 Comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

One response to “Taking Hollywood to task

  1. Steve Peck

    Agree this film was superb in many ways. Also with the general point, you make about the timing pictured in Lincoln’s presidency. The twilight of his administration and life made for drama that the characters could not know and we, the viewing audience could, that was effective and emotional. Given the lack of well-made, thoughtful historic films about the American Civil War, or for that matter any history I am hesitant to enter a critical discussion. However since you brought it up here goes.
    Horwitz and Masur make good points. There was enough time in this already lengthy film to have injected more conversation about race and emancipation. The African-Americans in the film rise above stereotypes but just barely.
    In particular, the script did not flesh the character of Elizabeth Keckly out. I have read several reviews that she was a maid to Mrs. Lincoln. These reviews were very positive about the film but woefully uninformed about the intimate relationship between Ms. Keckly and Mrs. Lincoln. I understand the reviewers’ confusion given what they saw on the screen. That was the fault of the filmmaker and the script. In depth readings about Elizabeth Keckly show, they did not have a firm grasp of the facts of her life and in her role in the Lincoln’s life. That is getting the facts wrong or at best doing poor job of representing them. Since Elizabeth Keckly was the major african-american in the film, I was disappointed in this failure. My thought is that five more minutes of Keckly and say maybe five less minutes of Robert Lincoln brooding about not being in “the war” might have carried this film to even greater heights.

    I believe it was critical to get the African-American roles (even if minor) in this film right and on this singular point the film faltered.

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