Thursday, November 29, 2012

How Accurate is Spielberg's "Lincoln"?

As I posted in my review of the new movie, I found the film to be amazingly accurate by Hollywood standards.  So I was intrigued to see comments on the film by two noted Lincoln authors, Matthew Pinsker and Allen Guelzo.

Guelzo's comments highlight some of the many accurate pieces of the film, including the spirit of Lincoln himself.  He is troubled by the "talkiness" of the movie.  Pinsker appreciates the movie, but is troubled by some of its inaccuracies and its simplification of history.

Both are generally correct in their assessments as historians, but I feel like they don't quite understand the possibilities and limitations of film.  Contrary to Pinsker, I am impressed by the sophistication of the storyline, which actually produces a fairly complete, if not fully nuanced, picture of the political realities faced by Lincoln.  In fact, I think this attempt at showing a more sophisticated picture, including the burden of the office beyond simply trying to pass the 13th Amendment, is why the film clocks in at well over 2 hours long.

Certainly there are inaccuracies in the movie, beyond conveniences like having Lincoln explicitly spell out to the Cabinet his underlying rationale for using the 13th Amendment to solve problems caused by executive assumption of war powers.  The Peterson House scene has significant problems in my mind -- the room is too big, Lincoln is in the bed wrong, Lincoln is dressed wrong -- and there is evidence that Lincoln handled military death cases in an established routine different from the late night reading depicted in the movie. 

But the film is hugely successful at exploring the nature of these people and the extraordinary time in which they lived.  While Pinsker is right to point out the confrontation between Lincoln and son Robert, I would argue that the scene is an accurate portrayal of certain key historical attributes -- the uneasy relationship between father and son, Lincoln's occasional flashes of temper (while Lincoln was notoriously lax in disciplining the children, there were exceptions, such as mistreatment of animals, that kindled his anger), Lincoln's defensiveness of Mary, to name a few.

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