I’ve been asked by several people why I’ve had nothing (or next to nothing) to say about the movie Lincoln. The reason is simple: predictability. If anything, I’ve been bored by what I have read, in part because it was so predictable. I understand that some people were breathlessly awaiting the movie’s premier (goodness knows I read enough blogs announcing one’s anticipation, sometimes in wording that reminded me that Chris Matthews isn’t alone in feeling a little tingle). I also know that there would be others who were already denouncing something they had yet to see (but then many of the same people criticize books they have never read, so what’s new?). There were even commentators anxious to stir things up (in large part because they have nothing better to do) who made what they could out of what they read. It was all so predictable … and boring.
I was also prepared for the reaction to the movie when it came out. The people who had criticized the movie before it appeared continued to sound the same notes … without viewing the movie. Non-historians who like history generally enjoyed the movie, as one would expect from a well-executed production with able actors. Professional historians offered their reservations, although in some cases those were muted by involvement in the production of the movie. Those reservations followed a predictable pattern, as did some of the responses to those criticisms. Again, boring.
My sole contribution to the post-release discussion locally was a television interview that could have been conducted with or without actually having viewed the movie. It was the usual “historian compares movie to history,” a construct designed to allow a cranky scholar to pick away at some minor points (and perhaps a few major ones) because no movie can bear the burden of the entire story of emancipation (or even Lincoln, slavery, and emancipation). I did my best to stay away from that format precisely because it was so … wait for it … predictable.
Most of all, I am very aware of how movies shape how we understand history, to the point that historians need to be aware of the interaction between the silver screen and the audience. This is especially true of the period of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, where movies such as Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Glory, Gettysburg, and now Lincoln have done so much to shape popular impressions of this period. There are even those who celebrate such films as Gods and Generals because they affirm their own personal take on what happened. So be it. Given that historians often express reservations about the work of their peers, it should come as no surprise that they would express reservations about the impression left by a film (as well as point out various issues of fact and fiction). It also now comes as no surprise that we now see folks chiding the critics for not simply seeing a movie as art, craft, and entertainment as well as education. Whatever. I hope y’all feel better now.
What interests me more is thinking about how to break out of these patterns to use these moments as opportunities to enlighten and educate, as ways to open discussions and conversations that engage more of us in constructive ways. I’m far from having the answers there, but it may be time to start asking the question of whether we can all do better, or whether we will continue to settle for bland predictability in such discussions.