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History and the Movies

History and the Movies

Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg production documenting the last months of our 16th president’s life with a focus on the political ins and outs of the passage of the Constitution’s 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. When it was released in 2012, the most serious criticism of the film revolved around its historical accuracy. None of the larger details of the story were challenged. Lincoln’s family and the names of his chief advisors and most of the principal senators were accurate and the characters for the most part accurately portrayed. Spielberg said at the time that he “wanted the audience to feel like they were eavesdropping on these moments in history” so he filmed some of the lengthiest scenes of his career and sought historical accuracy down to sending someone to the Kentucky Historical Society to record the ticking of Lincoln’s actual pocket watch for use in the sound effects of the film.

Every historically based drama has to pay simultaneous attention to historical detail and accuracy and yet be willing play somewhat loose with the facts in the interest of telling a story. This neither fish nor fowl approach provides what filmmakers believe is a cinematic experience that takes the viewer more deeply into the reality of the history involved than the bald facts would have. All movies share this dilemma to some degree, even those not based on historical events. Every movie must make the audience feel something; a film simply will not be seen by enough people, and therefore make money, unless it does so.

To make the audience feel, filmmakers must use their hour and a half to two hours and a half wisely. People are not fools so, if one plays too fast and loose with history, a movie faces the potential disdain, or worse the indifference, of the public (unless one does so intentionally as Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Bastards). On the other hand, if the story flags and the viewer becomes bored, all is lost, too. The limitations of film versus reality, such as the need to portray the passage of months or even years in mere minutes, means movie makers must collapse multiple characters into a single person or conflate a variety of events into one event in their films. Also, since there are no recordings of the events in Lincoln, the screenplay has to rely on often unreliable or sketchy reports of what was said, or on no reports at all, always the case, for instance, in the bedroom scenes in Lincoln.

Based to some degree on Team of Rivals, a historical work of non-fiction by one of America’s pre-eminent historians, Harvard’s Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln works very hard in its set design, chronology of events and the look and sound of its characters to present things as they really were. The portrayals of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln are noteworthy in this regard. Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field did prodigious research on their characters. No one is more obsessed with inhabiting his characters than Day-Lewis, and his research into Lincoln and his times is already legendary. Having worked and worked on an accent, for instance, that conveyed both the well-known high-pitched nature of Lincoln’s voice, which so irritated, and was mocked by, his detractors, and the depth and power of what Lincoln actually said time and again in both his speeches and his personal interactions, Day-Lewis, when he finally arrived at just the right sound, sent a recording of it to Spielberg that simply made him weep.

Field, too, though not as much written-about as Day-Lewis, almost perfectly captures the manic/depressive nature of the president’s wife. Short of stature as Mary was, her fiery, funny, take-charge and meddlesome nature is almost perfectly represented by the two-time Oscar winner. Eleven years older than Day-Lewis, Field looks almost exactly the same age; oddly Mary Todd was nine years younger than her husband. No matter; Field seems perfectly suited to the role and was able to reproduce brilliantly both the mannerisms and quirks of character of the first lady.

At the same time, Lincoln conflates much of the crucial debate in Congress. Connecticut Congressman Joseph Courtney wrote a letter to Spielberg demanding that he change the DVD account of the vote on the 13th Amendment because in the movie two of the three congressmen from Connecticut vote against the Amendment, when in reality all four of the actual congressmen voted for it. The reason Tony Kushner, the award-winning playwright who penned the script, changed the voting in the event was to heighten the drama during the vote for emotional impact. The overall result was substantially the same.

The question can be asked, “Yes, but this movie might become the way Americans begin to interpret a significant event in their history. Doesn’t the filmmaker have a responsibility to get it right?” Doesn’t it make sense for a Connecticuter to object, if history were to remember his or her state wrongly in this crucial event in America’s story? More than one commentator, including columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, thought so and wrote as much in the volume of articles about the film.

But more than Connecticut pride is played with historically in Lincoln. Historical figures are merged into single characters, lines of dialogue are edited, given to characters other than the ones who actually spoke them, or created whole cloth. Even arguments are advanced of which there is no record, especially in the scene where politicians from the south secretly meet with Lincoln’s representatives to try to negotiate an end to the war. Some characters are almost entirely fictional—the three political operatives played so well by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes are the best examples. Kushner, when asked about the dialogue, says he has lived with the material for so long, he is now unable to tell his own creations from direct quotations he culled from historical records.

The questions raised here have been around for so long, they are unlikely to find answers, and those answers certainly won’t come from a movie. What exactly is history? How are we to view its records, including fictional accounts attempting to give a feel for the past event? What are the differences between the writing of history and the writing of fiction? And what is the place of movies in the realm of the historical “records” of an event? What is their relation to truth, and how important is that question? All these are crucial questions for the Christian in a world that often denies the validity of history, much less its importance. A discussion of Lincoln and a few well-chosen articles makes a wonderful approach to coming to some conclusions on this issue.

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