Washington College history students know that professor and Lincoln scholar Richard Striner is not an easy A. So it means a lot that he rates the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln two thumbs up, A+, 10 out of 10.
Striner, who also teaches courses on the history of film, draws from a lifetime of scholarship. He has written three books on Lincoln and is an expert on the aspect of the 16th president that is the primary focus of the film—his moral and political commitment to ending slavery. In Lincoln and Race, published earlier this year by Southern Illinois University Press, Striner argues that Lincoln was remarkably free of racial bias, although he used his political genius to deceive his opponents about those attitudes in order to further the cause of human rights.
His first book on Lincoln, Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery (Oxford, 2006) shows how the fight to save the Union was always contingent on the ultimate phase-out of slavery. And his 2011 book, Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power (Rowman & Littlefield), examines how subsequent presidents borrowed from Lincoln’s playbook and used the power of the office to push forward large-scale public projects and policies that helped make the country great.
Striner thinks of Lincoln as “an idealist with street smarts,” a mix well illustrated in the film. “Lincoln chose to employ deception a number of times during his White House years. He had to craft a very careful strategy in order to prevent all sorts of worst-case contingencies, including a white supremacist backlash that would have set back the antislavery cause for God knows how many decades.
“If democracy is going to work, it demands leadership,” adds Striner. “And if the world is going to be made better, it will be by people who know how to deliver real results and not just pose on a soapbox demonstrating how perfect they are in their attitudes. That’s nice, but it doesn’t free any slaves.”
We asked Professor Striner a few questions about Lincoln the movie.
How historically accurate is the movie?
The screenplay for Spielberg’s Lincoln is a pastiche that contains three things: well-documented material (scenes and words that are derived from the historical record), scenes that are based upon nothing more than reasoned conjecture, and content that is purely fictitious. As historically inspired entertainment (as opposed to a documentary film), it is in my view a brilliant production, superb in almost every way. It presents a version of Lincoln’s leadership that is entirely consistent with my own interpretation as I laid it out in my book Father Abraham: Lincoln as a gifted moral strategist, an idealist with Machiavellian cunning. The parts of the movie that do take some liberties with the historical record do so in ways that amount to artistic license. None of them detracts in any serious way from the larger historical truth that the film presents.
Where did it take the most artistic liberties? Did any scenes make you cringe as an historian?
Several items were invented, especially the scene that shows Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly in the balcony of the House of Representatives while the Thirteenth Amendment was being debated. I have never seen evidence to support the idea that they were there. But nothing in the movie made me cringe as an historian, since none of the invented material creates a misleading impression regarding the overall point the movie makes.
Your critique of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln?
Day-Lewis’s performance was uncanny—nothing less than a masterpiece. When we read about characters, whether in history or in fiction, we tend to create a mental image of the person, we see them and hear them in action as we think about them. Well, this is the very first time that my own mental image of Lincoln was presented to me in a version that somebody else created. There it was, before my eyes, up there on the screen: Lincoln as I always imagined him to myself. Is that not extraordinary?
The movie was focused just on a short period of time in our history. Was that smart?
Spielberg decided to use this episode as a characteristic and also a decisively important specimen of Lincoln’s leadership. I think it was a brilliant decision that shows the overall grandeur of Lincoln’s work in microcosm.
Anything else you want to say about it?
See the movie!
— Kay Macintosh