While I love both movies and history, I cringe every time I see or read about a new Hollywood movie that attempts to give the definitive interpretation of a historical event.
The two are more like oil and water.
Hollywood never seems to get it historically right.
I think that is true–and I would add it is also true of many current historians–because their interpretations are driven by a particular agenda.
That agenda usually has something to do with social justice, abortion rights, civil right or the environment.
I recently spent a Sunday afternoon watching the new Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln.
The movie was highly touted because of the quality of its ensemble cast, led by Oscar winners, Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field.
As Lincoln Day-Lewis artistically caught many of the nuances and mannerisms of America’s most popular historical figure.
As Lincoln’s melancholic wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field, who looked much more matronly then when she was Forrest Gump’s mom, was voluptuously seductive in her nightshirt.
She had to lose 25 pounds to get the role and then had to gain 25 to keep it.
Only in Hollywood!
I thought she was far better than many reviewers had led the public to believe.
The overall effect of the movie left me a little cold.
Since it was billed as Lincoln’s second struggle to get something concrete after his symbolic victory with the Emancipation Proclamation two years prior, I smelled a civil rights agenda brewing in the Hollywood coffee pot.
Historians call that historicism.
It is a fallacy that I define as the viewing of past history through the ideological prism of the current day’s driving mores.
The movie underscored several interesting things about America’s political system.
It reminded me of another movie about Congress, Allen Drury’s 1959 novel, Advise and Consent.
It stands out in stark contrast for its accuracy and its attempt to portray things in a much more realistic fashion.
It was based on the sad tale of a homosexual Senator, Lester Hunt from Wyoming, who ultimately killed himself in 1954 after being pressured to resign by colleagues.
It captured the ruthless attempts by our leaders to maintain maximum control in Congress.
Unfortunately, as with Lincoln, millions of people will go to this movie and believe that this is the way it really happened.
Lincoln did go a long way to show the congressional divide that made the viewer think he was caught in a 2012 time warp.
Two congressional factions had coalesced around the subject of Reconstruction.
Taxes and spending had nothing to do with their divide.
A majority group of moderate Republicans in Congress supported Lincoln’s position that the Confederate states should be reintegrated as quickly as possible.
Lincoln believed that the Union was morally and politically indivisible.
To him the South had never really left.
It was akin to the child who runs away from home.
The South would almost be part of the national family.
A minority group of Radical Republicans–led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Ben Wade and Charles Sumner in the Senate–sharply rejected Lincoln’s plan.
They believe the South had really seceded.
They claimed Reconstruction should involve a re-admittance to the union at a great penalty for their secession.
Thaddeus Stevens played admirably by Tommy Lee Jones, Al Gore’s old roommate at Harvard, took his commitment to racial justice to his bedroom, as the movie showed his getting into bed with his black housemaid.
This stretches history a bit.
Though he never married, Stevens was rumored to have carried on a 23-year relationship with his widowed quadroon housemaid, Lydia Hamilton Smith.
In the film Stevens fudged his belief that the races were equal in all matters and not merely before the law.
These Radical Republicans wanted their pound of flesh.
They wanted to destroy the South’s ability, not only to wage war, but to ever be a threat to America’s social and political unity.
They wanted to effect sweeping social and economic changes in the South and grant the freed slaves full citizenship before the states were restored.
They wanted to pick its bones clean.
The influential group of Radicals also felt that Congress, not the president, should direct Reconstruction.
In July 1864, the Radical Republicans passed the Wade-Davis Bill in response to Lincoln’s 10 percent plan.
This bill required that more than 50 percent of white males take an ironclad oath of allegiance before the state could call a constitutional convention.
The bill also required that the state constitutional conventions abolish slavery.
Confederate officials or anyone who had voluntarily borne arms against the United States were banned from serving at the conventions.
Lincoln had pocket-vetoed, or refused to sign, the proposal, keeping the Wade-Davis bill from becoming law.
The Radical Republicans’ assault on the South in the post-bellum led to nearly 100 years of violence and repression.
Lincoln’s sense of magnanimity that Grant had so aptly displayed at Appomattox was quickly discarded.
The film was very contextual movie in that the debate seemed to imply that it would on a high note…that is the end of slavery.
The movie made little mention of the fact that three/fourths of the state legislatures had to approve the amendment.
This was not accomplished until December of 1865, several months after Lincoln’s assassination.
That was no easy battle.
Spielberg should have implied that Lincoln’s death made the 13th amendment almost moot and changed the entire nature of the post-war debate.
I do understand that Lincoln was not a documentary, nor was it bound by the rules of truth and accuracy but when movies do history they almost claim the same of kind legitimacy.
This in itself underscores just how powerful Hollywood has become.
Lincoln the film missed the historical consequences of Lincoln’s actions.
Having the gift of historical foresight, film-makers should always be faithful to the way things really happened.
They should imply that things are not always as rosy as they appear and that many political victories turn out to be hollow and often filled with a den of vipers.
The legacy of the 13th amendment and its sister laws, the 14th (citizenship) and 15th amendments (male suffrage) was filled with a den of unintended consequences, such as the KKK, Jim Crow Laws and segregation.
The Klu Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 by Nathan Bedford Forrest.
This led to another 100 years of racial strife and social disruption.
Millions voted for a black man for president twice now, hoping to heal the sins of Radical Reconstruction...only to find out that we are now almost as divided as we were in the 1840s.
There is a history lesson to be learned from this movie but I doubt it is the one that Spielberg had intended.