In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.
Lincoln: Public History in Hollywood
Once again a heavyweight filmmaker and a well-selected ensemble cast tackle a defining subject in American history. Once again a blockbuster forces me to reconcile the critical eye of historical training with the evangelical impulses inherent to public history. Hollywood historical fiction is a mixed blessing for public historians in an era when most Americans engage the past through popular entertainment rather than monographs or museums and tend to trust the judgment of respected filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg. Historical blockbusters expose large crowds to important historical subjects, but their biographical and narrative-driven format imposes interpretive choices that all too often minimize the film’s utility as public history. The substantial shortcomings in Lincoln, which my fellow reviewers discuss aptly, result from the genre’s conventions. My main objections include the surprising lack of African American perspectives and agency and the perpetuation of history as emanating from the words and deeds of elites.
Despite these shortcomings, Spielberg and company provide a rich narrative focused on the political dynamics of the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage and ending the Civil War. Such a tight focus allows a degree of nuance unattainable in a more generalized film on Lincoln in the Civil War. While the focus on rhetoric and politicking omits more bottom-up perspectives, it also conveys the major tensions and debates surrounding legal emancipation, ending the Civil War in an expedient manner, and a complicated animation of Lincoln as politician and emancipator.
Most importantly, the film presents the conflicting meanings of the war North and South and boldly asserts that, while the meaning may have changed over the course of the war, its ultimate meaning was ending over two hundred years of heritable human bondage. The film presents many of the premises used in the “Lost Cause” narrative and summarily refutes them with a compelling and nuanced interpretation. In an era of heightened Civil War remembering, this fictional reconstruction presents a much-needed interpretation to a mass audience that seems to seek meaning in the 150 year old trauma. Historians may bemoan certain omissions, generalizations, or perpetuated interpretive shortcomings, but on the large Lincoln succeeds at conveying the meaning and legacy of Lincoln and the Civil War. Hollywood may not produce perfect public history, but in this case, the product is invaluable.