Why Spielberg’s Lincoln Won’t Make a Difference … And Why It Will

I’m sure most of you have already seen this:

Now let me tell you why it won’t matter … and why it will matter.

It’s clear that for all of director Steven Spielberg’s talk that this movie is about the man and not the monument, the odds are that it will make the man more interesting and somehow greater than the monument.  Recall all of the press Spielberg and Tom Hanks did about the realism of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan as perhaps too real, too graphic … which simply built up anticipation.  That’s what trailers and interviews are supposed to do.

The movie will come out.  Some people will deplore it as Lincoln worship (I expect the loudest protests to come from people who will readily damn a movie they will never actually see).  Other people will celebrate it as a wonderful treatment of Lincoln, where Spielberg makes him come alive as a human being.  That will include those historians who have most carefully identified themselves with celebrating Lincoln’s greatness in various forums and in their writings.  Other historians will look carefully for flaws, as will those folks who are obsessed with making sure that all the details are in order (the uniforms were off … such-and-such is out of place … there’s a wristwatch, and who’s on that cell phone in the background?).

All of this is predictable and, frankly, a bit boring.  So will be the claims of how Spielberg makes history come alive and reaches people in a way no book on Lincoln could ever do (whispers about the ineffectual nature of historical scholarship and the important part that film has played in shaping the popular historical consciousness for nearly a century, especially in the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction era).  You know I’m right.

That said, what the movie will do is reignite an interest in Lincoln that did not appear during the bicentennial of his birth back in 2009, when, for all the books, stamps, coins, commemorations, and so on, we learned little about Lincoln that we did not already know, and the whole event seemed rather anticlimatic (I’d argue that it was only with Obama’s election, followed by his willingness to be identified with Lincoln, plus the mantra of “team of rivals” offered with the composition of his cabinet, that people took more than the usual interest in the sixteenth president).  In short, like the movie Glory and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the Civil War, the movie will serve as a point of departure for a new interest in Lincoln’s life, especially his presidency.

As they say, just watch.