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.
Kate Masur, writing recently on the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie, argues that Spielberg chose to take a narrow view of the politics of emancipation, keeping the focus on the white men in government, rather than the white female abolitionists or the enslaved and free African-Americans who helped make emancipation a reality. Like Masur, I would agree that equally compelling stories about the end of slavery during the Civil War could be imagined.
But part of the reason this film has generated so much interest and discussion is that, at least from the standpoint of artistic choices, it did a lot of things right. The acting was moving and creatively imagined. The language was sharp and evocative. Even when actors spoke words that would not have been part of the 1860s vernacular (one specific obscenity comes to mind), their lines created effective cinematic moments. Despite the narrow construction, the film managed to create a narrative and compelling framework that showcased a complicated array of characters.
Yet one of the central artistic failings in the film, in the last 15 minutes, came not because something got left out but because some of the film’s most essential themes were betrayed. Many critics, including those with very positive assessments of the movie, have chastised Spielberg for tacking on an overblown and drawn-out conclusion. The problem, however, wasn’t simply length or exaggeration. The way the film retreated to an oft-repeated pattern in Hollywood Civil War cinema—what I would call the trope of reconciliation—created a larger problem.
Just as Hollywood films almost always require a neat resolution to complicated and often unresolvable plots, so in this case did Spielberg and Tony Kushner feel compelled to tie up Lincoln in ways that defy the material they themselves presented. In the last few scenes they give us a series of episodes selectively culled and strung together to suggest a readiness to heal the sectional divide as quickly as possible.
Lincoln, for example, tells Grant to go easy on Lee and his men at the final surrender, leading Grant to show the Confederate commander a humble respect when they meet at Appomattox. The historical record does, in fact, confirm that Grant offered generous peace terms to Lee. But Grant also believed that the Confederate cause, and its defense of human bondage, was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”
Spielberg then takes us, indirectly, to the president’s assassination and the sight of Lincoln’s murdered body. Yet rather than end here—with an image that certainly does not portend harmonious reconciliation—Spielberg has Lincoln rise from the dead to deliver the best-known conciliatory phrases of his second Inaugural Address. Despite the impression left on audiences, Lincoln did not simply pledge to act “with malice toward none” and “with charity for all.” He also affirmed his belief that slavery had “somehow” been “the cause of the war” and that, perhaps, the full price for “the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil” may never be paid.
Up to this point, Spielberg’s film presents the Civil War as bloody, messy, and horribly divisive, perhaps no more so than on the question of freeing the slaves. We get an indication of those four deadly years of conflict in the movie’s opening scene, a gruesome depiction of brutal hand-to-hand combat between Confederates and black Union soldiers.
We hear echoes of the long, contentious war over slavery in the vituperative debate ringing through the halls of Congress over passage of the 13th Amendment.
And we begin to glimpse something of the long, arduous struggle for emancipation in the all-too-rare utterances of the film’s black men and women.
Yet at the movie’s conclusion much of that conflict seamlessly and simplistically disappears into final gestures of good will. As the movie ends, we are presented with a nation ready to live under Lincoln’s charitable and malice-free directive. The fact that the Reconstruction period following the Civil War was also bloody, messy, and horribly divisive, especially on the question of black freedom, suggests how much of the film was based on hope and aspiration—not historical reality.
Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and the author of numerous books on the Civil War and its afterlife, including The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 and Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War.