Historians Say ‘Lincoln’ Has It Mostly Right
President Lincoln visits a battlefield in a scene from "Lincoln." (Associated Press)
Howard Coffin, a Vermont Civil War historian, praised Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, above. (Associated Press)
Jamie Horton of Etna, a theater professor at Dartmouth College, plays a Congressman in Lincoln. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Hollywood’s relationship to the history depicted in its films has always been awkward. Like the sweepers who follow the elephants in a parade, cleaning up the mess left behind, historians are often left pointing out inaccuracies, anachronisms and in some cases, misinterpretations or dangerous misrepresentations in historical films that lay claim to authenticity. Some artistic license is to be expected, but too many movies have conflated and confused events and people in a way that does no credit to either the film or the history it portrays.
So when a film is released about America’s greatest president overseeing the passage of one of the most critical amendments to the Constitution, the 13th amendment which abolished slavery, the question is this: Did Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, the director and screenwriter of Lincoln get the man and the history right?
Mostly, seems to be the answer, with a few quibbles.
“I had high expectations for it and I thought they did a great job,” said Bob Bonner, a professor of American History at Dartmouth College. “(The filmmakers) reached out to a number of historians to vet it. Anything that seemed that it might be off would be caught by the Lincoln industry.”
The story that Spielberg and Kushner tell, which is based partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, is a complex one. In the winter and spring of 1865, a number of intertwined events that could mean the end of the Civil War are jostling for Lincoln’s attention.
There’s the lobbying for the constitutional amendment, “an episode in (Lincoln’s) presidency that isn’t given as much attention as it should be,” Bonner said. There’s the related issue of a trio of Confederate commissioners, led by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, who travel north to sue for a negotiated peace. Finally, said Bonner, there is the ultimately successful Union assault on Fort Fisher in North Carolina, a crucial resupply point for the Confederacy.
“I’m impressed by what they’re asking the viewers to keep in mind. It takes viewers with a pretty considerable attention span,” Bonner said.
That said, one of the main criticisms of the film expressed by some historians is that some of the African-American characters seem passive, which leaves the unfortunate and misleading impression that as a people they looked wholly to whites for salvation, rather than, as in so many cases, being agents of their own deliverance.
“If you’re looking for a movie about emancipation, which was such a complicated set of circumstances and forces; if you’re looking for a movie about the end of slavery, it falls short,” Bonner said.
Also problematic, said Leslie Butler, an associate professor of American history at Dartmouth, is the way the film shows Lincoln as a man whose views on race are largely fair-minded and benign, rather than acknowledging the lengthy and sometimes tortuous evolution of his conviction that slavery must go and that African-Americans should be permitted to fight for the Union; as well as his own back-and-forth on whether blacks were the intellectual equals of whites.
“I think it’s a very good film that worked for me totally cinematically, but if I were wearing a historian’s cap I would have liked to have seen that arrival at his view,” Butler said. “I would have liked to have seen more grappling, and when that light bulb comes on for him.”
Butler has taught a course at the college on Hollywood’s treatment of American history. “I think that’s why historians tend to get all exercised about these depictions,” she said. “Movies have come to have this important power in shaping our collective memory. Many would grant that art can take poetic license. But movies do come to stand in for how we remember things, they sit there in our minds in an unconscious way.”
Jim Wright, a historian and president emeritus of Dartmouth, said “I thought (the film) did a good job of capturing Lincoln,” a person whose stature as a president and politician, flaws and all, has only increased over time, although his reputation has been subject to the vagaries of historical revision. “The more you know about him the more you admire him,” Wright said. “Normally the opposite is the case.”
“He really did think slavery could not continue. He did stand for these things. He made it very clear that the South could not secede, that it was one nation. These were things he was very resolute about,” Wright said. “On the other hand he was a superb politician, he was able to compromise. This movie does demonstrate his capacity to bring people around.”
Bonner, Butler and Wright admired Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln. Butler called him “absolutely brilliant, I was transfixed by him;” and Bonner said that “if there were another actor it would still be a strong script but it wouldn’t be a lasting accomplishment.”
But not everyone was as impressed. For Vermont Civil War historian Howard Coffin, author of Full Duty and Nine Months to Gettysburg, Lewis’ Lincoln was “a little bit mild. I’ve always been fascinated by Lincoln’s face. ... You see a dual personality: he’s very humane and at the same time he’s as tough as nails. I thought the humane side came through in Daniel Day-Lewis, but I also thought he was a little bit soft.”
Coffin’s favorite Lincoln remains Hal Holbrook, who played the president in a TV series in the 1970s, and is also in Lincoln playing Preston Blair, a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party during the period depicted in the movie. “He had Lincoln’s voice just right. I think Lewis’ voice is too high. I’ve heard Lincoln’s voice compared to FDR’s, which is somewhat high-pitched but carries very well,” Coffin said.
If anything, Coffin said, the movie belonged not to Lincoln but Thaddeus Stevens, the Vermont-born, Dartmouth-educated Radical Republican from Pennsylvania, played by Tommy Lee Jones. “That was a wonderful performance,” Coffin said. “Stevens was a powerful figure in American history who isn’t known enough. He was not only the most staunch anti-slavery man in Congress at the time, but he was very much key to funding the Northern war effort.”
In general, Coffin said, “I’m very glad that (the film) was made and the thing ... I’m happiest about is that it will make people aware of Thaddeus Stevens who never have been aware of him before. He’s such a major figure.”
There is one sore point in the film for Coffin, however: the portly build of the actor playing Robert E. Lee. After years of marching, privation, sickness and battle, it’s unlikely that soldiers and commanders would have a lot of flesh on their frames, Coffin said, and even more implausible that the Lee who surrendered at Appomattox would look as if he’d made a habit of feasting at the table. “That fellow looked foolish,” Coffin said.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Saturday, Dec. 15 edition of the Valley News:
Preston Blair was a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party during the period depicted in the movie "Lincoln." A story in Thursday's Close-Up section incorrectly stated his position.