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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 04:10 am

History by the book

Spielberg almost gets Lincoln right


Springfield has seen two Lincoln movies recently – Saving Lincoln, which retells the White House years from the perspective of his close friend and bodyguard and which the Abraham Lincoln Association screened on Feb. 11 at Abe World, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  That left moviegoers asking the question, Which one is worth seeing? I’m more interested in whether either is worth believing.

Filmmakers always lie. Sometimes this is because of budget or the constraints of the medium, but usually it is done consciously and in the interests of a good – that is, an easily assimilable – story. It hasn’t hurt Lincoln’s box office, therefore, that historians and the more informed journalists are complaining that Spielberg’s depictions of the events portrayed in the film are inaccurate.

I’m being polite. In a key scene, Spielberg has two of Connecticut’s four congressmen voting against submitting the 13th Amendment that, when ratified by the states, would end slavery. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has acknowledged that he portrayed the vote inaccurately and that he did so deliberately, to juice up his cliffhanger narrative.

“I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters,” he added in a statement. I hope Kushner is not shocked to learn that the difference between making up dialogue that we have no record of and making up votes that we do have a record of is the difference between imaging and lying.

Certain liberties must be taken in small matters, of course, but the conscientious moviemaker tries very hard to get at least the big things right. The big thing at the heart of this movie’s appeal, alas, is the one thing that Spielberg and Kushner also got wrong – how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

By the final months of the war, as the South’s civil structure broke down, slaves were able to free themselvces in fact by means of spontaneous rebellions. These events, indeed former slaves themselves, hardly figure in the film at all – a point eloquently made by The Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates in a Nov. 30 blog post, “Slightly Longer Thoughts on Lincoln,” which the State Journal-Register’s Mike Kienzler rightly called “the smartest thing anybody has written yet about Lincoln.”

The slaves were freed in law by the passage and subsequent ratification of the 13th Amendment, not solely because of wheeling and dealing by Lincoln but because of the decades-long  agitations by abolitionists (whose importunities Lincoln resisted for years) and due to the fact that the ratification vote was rigged. Legislatures in the reconstructed South had been purged of pro-slavery members, and ratifying the amendment was made a condition for former Confederate states to rejoin the Union.

We don’t expect our historians to be able to set up a panning shot, so it may seem unfair to expect our moviemakers to be good historians. On the other hand, our historians don’t presume to make movies, at least the good ones don’t. One historian who did is Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book, Team of Rivals, is said to be the basis of the Tony Kushner script.

We have come to expect that a film based on a book will not get the book right. In this case, they didn’t even get the right book. By all accounts Kushner’s script draws much more heavily on a different book, by scholar Michael Vorenberg. Why then does Goodwin get the screen credit? Because Spielberg bought the rights to her book years ago, her contract apparently obliges the producers to credit her.

As I said, movies get history wrong all the time. What fascinates me about this one is that even the historians and social critics who decry its factual errors and misrepresentations (including all the aforementioned people) have announced they admire the movie. They are not alone of course. Indeed, that movie is the biggest boost to Springfield tourism since Lincoln was shot. The success of what I will henceforth call Kushner’s Lincoln apparently surprised its studio, which rolled it out as if it was an art film, not a blockbuster. Why are people flocking to it?

Maybe a generation of nice liberals who were raised to detest patronage and logrolling as immoral find the practice of such politics in the Oval Office as thrilling as sex in the bedroom was to the 1960s filmgoer. Good old-fashioned national pride – distinct, please, from patriotism – is excited in Americans by the spectacle of their government actually achieving something they regard as honorable.

And maybe younger viewers find the demonstration of the value of such forgotten virtues as intelligence, character, self-discipline and patience to be unaccountably moving on the screen because they see it so seldom in real life. In that, as so often in past, Mr. Lincoln has taught a new generation something worth knowing.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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