Lincoln Group Critiques Spielberg on History

Lincoln, the movie, has thrilled his devotees from the moment of its release.  The “spot-on” portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis seems to have captured the very essence of Lincoln’s character and persona.  I’m remembering a long line of Lincoln portrayals from Raymond Massey, who was too self-consciously historic, to Sam Waterson who was too strident and too humble.  Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had the great sense to narrow the story to one brief but momentous segment of the 16th president’s life that could be used to develop a portrait of Lincoln not as the great leader on the five dollar bill, but as “a man in full,” with the greatness mixed in with fears, self-doubts, political reality and family concerns.

Daniel Day-Lewis as president Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln."

But how true to history was the movie?  I was on a panel in March for The Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia that analyzed the movie and the record.  Referee-ing more than 50 Lincoln enthusiasts as they picked apart a movie that they had all absolutely loved was a surreal moment.  For me it underscored the ultimate question: “Whose history are we talking about?”

My co-panelists Craig Howell, Karen Needles and Dr. John Elliff laid out the big issues and the time-line.  The story of the passing of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives occurred during the first six weeks of 1865.  The movie follows no single account of the events surrounding the vote.  Doris Kearns Goodwin gets the credit for the story, but her groundbreaking book, Team of Rivals, devotes only five pages to this subject.  Tony Kushner’s screenplay draws on about 30 different sources from which he created his own dramatic interpretation of the underlying conflicts and relationships of the principle characters.

There is no record of the Lincolns having any discussion at a theatre, nor that Mrs. Keckly ever accompanied Mrs. Lincoln there. But it probably could have happened. This is the type of liberty that the Kushner script took to add dramatic context to the film story. But the result is that he invents his facts. Is it history?

There is no record of the Lincolns having any discussion at a theatre, nor that Mrs. Keckly ever accompanied Mrs. Lincoln there. But it probably could have happened. This is the type of liberty that the Kushner script took to add dramatic context to the film story. But the result is that he invents his facts. Is it history?

Our panel agreed that Kushner captured the essential events roughly in sequence.  More importantly, he gave many of the key characters depth and substance.  Mary Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckly, William Seward and Thad Stevens all left me believing in who they were and wanting to learn more about them.  But most of the dialogue and events in which they were portrayed were not taken from any written record.  History does not typically leave records rich enough to know what people thought or what they spoke in private.  That these people come alive so convincingly doesn’t mean that the facts as given are correct.  Kushner puts his characters in scenes and situations for which there are is frequently no record to compare.  This doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened.  But if we can’t find the record to support it, is it history?

Daniel Day-Lewis projects the most wonderfully complete image of Abraham Lincoln that I could imagine.  As father, husband, politician and statesman, he portrays the president’s great qualities in seeking the greater good knowing when to compromise or when to stand fast for a principle.  But here Kushner filled in the otherwise blank spaces in the record with moving and insightful dialogue.  How great were the liberties he took?  Did Mr. Lincoln ever discuss Emancipation with Mrs. Keckly?  Did Lincoln direct a vote-buying campaign to pass the 13th Amendment?  Did the president ever strike his eldest son, Robert?  There is no direct evidence for any of this, so has Kushner created his own version of the president’s character and motivations?

Kushner also had a wide range of opinions to draw on in creating his interpretation of the main characters.  The president’s relationship with his oldest son, Robert, is hard to read.  But rather than intense, as it was presented on-screen to the point that Lincoln even struck him, Robert himself had called it “reserved.”  Though the president was known to lose his temper (rarely), it was never expressed physically.  Robert himself never even suggested that his father had hit him.  In fact, the only mention of an argument in the record is John Nicolay’s note about Robert complaining that he “just had a major row” with Lincoln, but over Robert’s complaint that father wouldn’t discipline little Tad.

Even Robert's intense desire to join the army against his parents' wishes would not have caused him to want add to his father's burdens .

Robert’s intense desire to join the army against his parents’ wishes would not have caused him to want add to his father’s burdens .

In a recent interview, Kushner said, “I hope no one is shocked to learn that I had to make up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters!”  It turned out that my role on the panel was to defend the honor of an unlikely victim, Pennsylvania congressman Thad Stevens, against one of Kushner’s hypothetical scenarios.

Contemporary profiles seem to describe Thad Stevens as the very picture of the abusive, irreligious and scatological congressman portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones

Contemporary profiles seem to describe Thad Stevens as the very picture of the abusive, irreligious and scatological congressman portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones

In one of the closing scenes, the triumphant Stevens is shown in bed with his black housekeeper, Mrs. Lydia Smith, listening proudly while she reads aloud the newly passed Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery (oops, did I give away the ending?).  This depiction of the relationship takes the side of Stevens’ slave-owner critics.  They delighted in countering his observations about the many slave children who resembled their masters with their own charge that Stevens and his housekeeper were “living as man and wife.”  There is much evidence that their 20-year relationship was very close.  But there is no evidence given by anyone who knew them that the relationship was ever physical.  In fact, Stevens never bothered to respond to the accusations while he was in office, when it might have been prudent to do so.  Only after he had retired from Congress did he publicly deny an improper relationship with Mrs. Smith.  Perhaps Kushner unwittingly sided with the Stevens critics in an effort to show him as more “progressive” to a modern audience.

This is just one example of how this wonderful film has adapted a view or skewed some facts to make a very interesting story.  If this sends new readers off to investigate other sources and to come to their own conclusions, perhaps that would be the best way of promoting the search for the truth in history.

But for producing a profoundly beautiful and compelling portrait of a beloved president at a politically and personally challenging time, this is an inspiring work of art.                         Well done, Steven Spielberg!

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About John O'Brien

My name is John and I brake for roadside historical markers. The Civil War has been a particular interest since my dad took me to the 100th Anniversary re-enactment at Gettysburg. Since then, I have toured battlefield sites throughout the eastern theatre. My three daughters can mark their growth by the fortifications and cannons they were posed against. Living in the Washington, D.C. metro area since 2005 has allowed me access to the amazing resources here for studying the Lincoln Administration and the National Capital during the Civil War. I started looking for a guide to President Lincoln's life in Washington, but nothing available seemed to capture enough of the story to satisfy me. So I created my own. You can buy the beautifully illustrated map on this website. I put a high personal value in trying to settle confusion in the professional literature as to where Lincoln did what. So I spent a lot of time going to source documents to verify my sites. This website will share more detail about the Lincoln sites and will continue to update the research. I want to help the reader experience Washington as Lincoln did, as if through his eyes. This is about exploring the public life of Abraham Lincoln and the civil war history of Washington, DC.
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3 Responses to Lincoln Group Critiques Spielberg on History

  1. Kristin says:

    Would have been a fun movie to debate in history class. I’m going to point some teachers I know in the direction of this post for ideas!

  2. Nice post. I wish I could have made this event. I went ahead and cross-posted to my blog Facebook page. Incidentally, the recent issue of Civil War Monitor has several essays on the movie that you might want to check out, if you haven’t already.

    • Profile photo of John O'Brien John O'Brien says:

      Thanks, Ron. I appreciate your note. Our Lincoln club has a tradition of reviewing the historic accuracy of new books and films. We might put on a Lincoln film festival this summer. I’ll keep you posted. I still admire how your “Civil War in Northern Virginia” blog continues to develop, All Not so Quiet on the Potomac. And I’m still working on that Winder Building article.
      John

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