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Now and Then: ‘Lincoln,’ the Movies, and Historical Accuracy

Now and Then: 'Lincoln,' the Movies, and Historical Accuracy

“Lincoln” is no dour disquisition, no romance of an imagined past, but a heroic, even thrilling drama of compromise and chicanery in the midst of the Civil War. Indeed, it resolves one of the medium’s oldest conundrums: “Lincoln” is that rare thing, good history and great cinema at once.

What “good history” looks like is, of course, debatable. This morning, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Kate Masur criticizes the film for the passivity of its black characters — for replicating the image of African-Americans awaiting salavation from white heroes. On the other hand, in his glowing review of “Lincoln” for the New York Times, A.O. Scott recalls the ideological travesties of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind,” which have about as much to do with the reality of life in the nineteenth-century South as “Looper” does with the current state of time travel. Historical filmmaking, both suggest, cannot escape the fact that the world it conjures up has some relation to the way the world actually was.

Perhaps this is why Griffith’s epic passes increasingly into irrelevance: despite its great leap forward in film syntax, its vision of the South’s “Lost Cause” grows more revolting with distance. Though the sight of Flora Cameron adding raw cotton to her burlap dress still carries with it a masterful balance of ruddy gentility and hopeful striving, one cannot help but see in such an image the ghost of this country’s history of violence. If Flora is innocent, then so is the Confederacy, the nation itself. Such sins are not so easily forgiven, even in the cinema’s magical, dreamy dark.  

These questions remain just as resonant today, as evidenced by last year’s controversy over “The Help.” Is it possible to recommend the film despite its problematic racial politics, its historical inaccuracies? I did. In the delicate balancing act between narrative drive and historical honesty, “The Help” succeeds on the strength of its cast — women whose fervent, finely tuned, and eminently believable portraits showcase a complicated range of responses to intimacy and inequality in 1960s Mississippi. For being deeply felt, “The Help” largely overcomes its numerous defects. It is a better movie than it is work of history, something I’m willing to forgive of a film whose heart seems to be in the right place.

“Lincoln,” maybe Spielberg’s most canny and humane film, does one better. It manages to transcend the dramatic limits of the man at its core by being rooted in what his human limits were. “The Great Emancipator” doesn’t make for a very interesting protagonist — saviors, like the Jesus of Mel Gibson’s punishing “The Passion of the Christ,” are all faith and bone, with nothing for an audience member or a filmmaker to sink his teeth into. By dint of the lush, lived-in density of Tony Kushner’s remarkable script, “Lincoln” makes the man courageous but not incorruptible. He’s a lesser orator than we generally think of him, yet a more skillful politician; a president animated but not constrained by his fierce morality; a father and husband both loving and imperious. Not faith and bone, but flesh and blood.

In setting limits, “Lincoln” marks the territory of its brilliance. As Anne Thompson noted in last Friday’s Oscar Talk, the filmmakers mapped the story of the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage onto Lincoln’s daily schedule, a level of detail that would be impossible to achieve had Spielberg, prone to overloading his films, gone the way of the traditional soup-to-nuts biopic. Indeed, the film’s weakest moments are those when Spielberg and Kushner slip into reverence for Lincoln’s stations of the cross. His Second Inaugural Address, for one, becomes an afterthought — a contrived coda, demanded more by expectation than narrative necessity, which little respects this nation’s most beautiful prose poem.

Luckily, the tendency to grandstand forms only the film’s bookends. In between, there’s an exciting attention to human frailty and political backbiting, an ingenious, down-and-dirty vision of history that depicts the immense complexities of the people involved. Masur is right: there is much left out of the tale, from the brave, day-to-day resistance of the enslaved to the work of those abolitionists who, because of their sex or the color of their skin, could not claim a voice in the House of Representatives. But the distance between her argument and Scott’s points to the central problem of historical filmmaking — the requirements of history and the necessities of cinema are often at loggerheads.

On its own terms, though, “Lincoln” does much to revise the simplistic version of the crucible by which the United States passed from slavery to freedom: racism did not stop at the Mason-Dixon line, and not every vote to pass the amendment placed the enormity of bondage over the grim facts of war. “Lincoln” is great cinema because it’s (more or less) good history, all the more compelling for being true, impressionistically if not always literally, to many of the nuances of the past — a place where there has never been a clear line between saints and sinners.

“Lincoln” is now playing in select cities, with wider expansion planned for Friday.

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