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Reel Lincoln: The Case for the Spielberg Film

As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, historians are raising different issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.

Even as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln emerged as an unqualified critical and popular triumph, the historical nitpickers—myself among them, I must confess—were only hiding in the scholarly reeds, waiting to pounce on the factual (and even some interpretive) errors admittedly punctuating the hit movie. Now comes the mini-avalanche of gotcha comments, which has grown into something of an academic parlor game. How many errors can one identify in a two-and-a-half-hour movie?

Of course, the answer depends on what constitutes a genuine “error.” Yes, the U.S. Capitol dome did not look anything like the odd exterior that glistens in the sun on the day Congress votes on the resolution for the 13th Amendment. What is that mystery structure, anyway?

Nor did Rep. Thaddeus Stevens plop himself down after the climactic floor debate, exhausted but unbowed, in front of a statue of George Washington and a doorway adorned with the inscription “Old House Chamber”—a setting that looks very much like the rotunda of the Virginia (aka Confederate!) Capitol, in Richmond, where the film was indeed shot.

Lincoln himself never displayed a print of William Henry Harrison in his office. He would never have borrowed fragile, one-of-a-kind glass photographic plates from Alexander Gardner, much less entrusted them to his ungovernable little boy, Tad.

Mary Lincoln hardly monitored the House debate on the amendment from the visitors’ gallery, and surely would not have complained about her husband’s propensity for inviting evil “radicals” to the White House when her own closest Capitol Hill friend and confidant was unapologetically one of them himself: Sen. Charles Sumner.

The possibility that any Union soldier, black or white, would have committed the Gettysburg Address to memory in 1863 is, to say the least, remote. The words did not enter the national vocabulary until the early 20th century.

And when the lobbyists hired to bribe undecided congressmen to vote “yes” on the 13th Amendment confess that it’s difficult to get their prey to accept coins adorned with Lincoln’s hated visage, it’s clear that someone has made a numismatic miscalculation: Lincoln’s face did not appear on American currency until 1869, four years after his death, and even then only on paper notes, not coins.

Does all that trivia matter? In a phrase, not really. Steven Spielberg and the scenarist Tony Kushner never designed this irresistible biopic as a dusty reiteration of Lincoln’s precise words. Yes, from the beginning they wanted the film to be as accurate as possible, but not at the expense of emotion. Thus when fact and drama come into conflict in the film, the former bends and the latter prevails—and what’s wrong with that? Full disclosure: I proudly served as a script consultant for the film, and later was given the opportunity to write the official young-adult companion book, Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America (Newmarket Press for It Books/HarperCollins).

On November 19, the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I enjoyed the further privilege of introducing Spielberg to the 9,000 people who crowded into the National Soldiers’ Cemetery for the annual Dedication Day. What he said that morning put the issue of history filmmaking into sharp perspective.

“We can’t remember everything,” Spielberg reminded the audience. “History forces us to acknowledge the limits of memory … It tells us that memory is imperfect, no matter how much of the past we’ve covered … It’s not the job, and in fact it’s a betrayal of the job, of a historian to promise perfect and complete recall of the past, to promise memory that abolishes loss.”

“One of the jobs of art,” he added, “is to go to the impossible places that other disciplines, like history, must avoid.”

Harold Holzer’s new book is Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America, published this month by Newmarket Press for It! Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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