Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Go See It

Go see Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's latest movie. It's a treat, and unlike Hollywood's usual performance with history, this time it gets it down pretty close to accurate. I saw it again yesterday for the second time, and to tell the truth, I cannot remember the last time I saw a movie more than once in a theater (DVDs not counting). Here's what I had to say about it to a gaggle of LSU historians I've stayed in contact with over the years when I first saw it, about ten days ago:
This is another of Spielberg's masterpieces. There was so much that was right about the movie, that nit-picking its faults seems somehow unimportant, although we historians are to do it anyway. The film's meticulous attention to the tiniest details is something that characterizes it and can't possibly be appreciated with just one viewing. (I'm definitely going to see this again.) And the excellence in the portrayal of lesser characters in the story such as Alex Stephens, Gideon Welles, and U. S. Grant simply underscores the overall mastery of how he has caught the people, places, and the time in a narrative that rings consistently accurate. If there's been a better depiction of the American political process on screen, I don't know of it. I don't know which guys are going to be competing with Daniel Day-Lewis for the best actor Oscar, but I would not want to be one of them. He will win in a walk. And finally a Lincoln much more likely to reflect what the reality was will displace all those semi-deified cinematic images we've been carrying around in our heads all these years.
There are certainly enough historical inaccuracies for people familiar with the period to wag the familiar scolding finger at Hollywood for not being more careful. But, truth be told, historians are almost always displeased with the way the movies depict a subject they are expert about. So you won't be surprised if I make the following critical observations.

--Events depicted that never happened, some of them hokey, others just invented
  1. Lincoln's conversation with a couple of black soldiers in the beginning of the movie. Never happened. Plus one of them claimed to be from the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry. This unit existed and was black, but never left the Trans-Mississippi theater. 2nd Kansas did fight at battle of Jenkins Ferry in Louisiana in 1864, but absurd that hand-to-hand combat was depicted. Never happened, much less the wholesale slaughter of the Confederates (no prisoners) by the black troops.
  2. Singing of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" after passage of the amendment in the House. Gimme a break.
  3. Vast public celebration in Washington after passage of the amendment. Never happened.
  4. The matters discussed at the Hampton Roads Conference between Lincoln-Seward and the three Confederate commissioners.
 But there were enough excellencies to outweigh the problems by far. I've already mentioned Daniel Day-Lewis's performance. But Sally Fields was excellent, as was Tommy Lee Jones as Thad Stevens, and David Strathairn as William Seward. James Spader did an excellent job as Democrat opponent of the amendment in the House, Ohioan W. N. Bilbo. Everything else from cinematography to score was excellent. The best Spielberg flick to come down the pike for a while.
 
Here's the IMDb page.
Here's the Rotten Tomato page.

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