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.

8 thoughts on “Why Spielberg’s Lincoln Won’t Make a Difference … And Why It Will

  1. Jerry Desko September 14, 2012 / 2:33 pm

    Spot on.

    I thought I was the only one that thought the 200th anniversary of his birth was a dud. I also think the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is a bore and a dud.

    I think the only saving grace is that more people may pick up a book and actually read about Lincoln. And it is okay if they download it and read it as well.

    • Bill Newcomer September 14, 2012 / 6:45 pm


      Good point regarding people actually reading about Lincoln. I sometimes wonder how many of Lincoln’s modern day critics ever read the Lincoln – Douglas Debates or the Cooper Union Address. Reading Lincoln in his own words can be a real eye opener… And those downloads are readily available on the internet.

      • Jerry Desko September 14, 2012 / 9:45 pm

        Bill you’re right about the web. It’s great the ORs and Lincoln’s collected works are there and searchable. My weak point is I love books. Just a few weeks ago I bought the collected works used for $75. I still need a book in the hand to read, especially during a power failure.

    • Brad September 15, 2012 / 6:18 am

      In my opinion Lincoln is one of our great writers of the 19th Century. His speeches and letters are — to use a worn expression — a gift that keeps on giving. For those who may not have read it, I recommend Douglas Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword.

  2. Lyle Smith September 14, 2012 / 6:24 pm

    This film is going to be the zenith of the sesquicentennial, for better or worse probably.

    I’m not actually that impressed by the trailer. The Glory trailer, when it came out, put a lump in my throat. Not this trailer.

    • John Foskett September 15, 2012 / 8:00 am

      i agree, although i’ll wait and see before I come to a conclusion. What I’ll make a healthy wager on right now is that this will not (because it cannot) portray the “real” Lincoln of mixed, and often uncertain or confused, aims and beliefs. That can only be gotten from reading carefully selected books (cue Dimitri for some valid points about even book-contained Civil War/Lincoln history). The movie/television media have built-in time and audience constraints. The most we can shoot for is a reasonably accurate synopsis which hopefully generates interest in further learning. That’s how i intend to assess it (and it’s how I assess Burns’s material). If it gets past the low hurdle of junk like Gods and Generals, it’s a step in the right direction.

      • Lyle Smith September 16, 2012 / 6:44 pm

        Daniel Day-Lewis alone probably makes it a little bit special. I’m looking forward to seeing it, but the trailer just underwhelms me. It’s just a trailer though. There are some good trailers out there for some bad movies.

        I’m looking forward to the Civil War mini-series that started filming this past spring. Hopefully it’ll supersede “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals”.

    • Karen Hatzigeorgiou September 16, 2012 / 8:00 am

      Well, I guess I’m a sap, but I got the lump in my throat AND tears in my eyes on this one!

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