A Choice Interpetation of Interpretive Choice

When my take on something differs with Brooks Simpson’s take, I immediately ask myself where I went wrong.  Of course, no two people will agree on everything, but I greatly respect Brooks’ knowledge and judgment, and if I’m going to disagree with him, even slightly, then I’m going to take a second, third, or perhaps even a fourth look beforehand.

In a (as usual) informative and thought-provoking post, Brooks gently suggests I and a couple of blogging colleagues rethink our support for the position taken by Hari Jones in his response to Kate Masur’s critique of Spielberg’s Lincoln.  I understand and accept his view of Jones’ tone.  In fact, I agree with him on that now that he’s called my attention to it.  When I read both pieces originally I was focused on the arguments being made, not how they were being made, and I think it’s fair to take into account Jones’ tone.

That being said, I still think Jones’ argument, putting aside the tone for the moment, was an effective counter to Masur’s critique.  I still believe Masur, like several other academics who have taken the film to task, had in mind a film she wanted to see made instead of the film that was actually made.

I said originally that I thought it would have been nice if Frederick Douglass had made an appearance.  I still think so, but I’m not an award-winning director.  Including more depth on William Slade would have been nice, too.  Perhaps that movie will be made some day.  But I think Jones is right that including Douglass would have been an artifice.  Of course, the movie is a work of fiction, and so artistic license would allow the artifice.  But again, it’s a choice made by the director.  Masur disagrees with that choice, Jones agrees with it.

While the movie did go up to April 14, 1865, that was only a closing gesture for the movie in my opinion.  Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was the metaphorical cherry on the top of the film.  I don’t think their inclusion means that Jones’ critique of Masur is any less effective (again, discounting the tone of Jones’ article).

As I said, I think Brooks’ comment about Jones’ tone is very valid, and he’s right that the tone itself went too far.  Looking back on it, I have to admit it detracts from Jones’ position.

At the end of his post, Brooks makes a very thought-provoking statement.  How might we have made the film incorporating Masur’s objections?  I’m going to chicken out.  I don’t know anything about making an award-winning movie.  Maybe such a movie would be more historically accurate, but would it have been as successful?  The purpose of making the movie, after all, is to entertain and to make money.  It’s not made to educate us.  Any education that happens is purely happenstance.  The movie that was made has been phenomenally successful.  I wouldn’t want to mess with that.  After all, it’s a movie, not a history book.  I don’t believe filmmakers have moral obligations to make their films visual history books.

As an aside, here is Matthew Pinsker’s “Unofficial Teacher’s Guide to Spielberg’s Lincoln.”

What do you think of the Masur/Jones/Spielberg issue?


  1. in a totally unrelated note…ok, not completely unrelated, did you see National Geographic’s “Killing Lincoln”? I just watched it on On Demand. I know it’s based on a book by Bill O’Rielly, which initially made me hesitant about it, as I cannot stand that man. But, anyway, I was wondering your thoughts on the production. 🙂 With regards to Spielberg’s film, while Mr. Douglass was involved with Lincoln (if I recall correctly) I think including him would be pandering to special interests, though perhaps a more historically accurate pander than the inclusion of the black soldiers quoting the Gettysburg Address at the beginning of the film. But by beginning with the Gettysburg Address and ending with the 2nd Inaugural Spielberg framed his film between Lincoln’s most famous oratories on freedom. And by having them recited instead of in the film as they were delivered, he can focus on his specific window: the official legal end to slavery, rather than the whole of Lincoln’s presidency. Which would be a cumbersome film to make, produce, and watch if done “correctly”. My main issue, historically speaking, (though I am not nearly as learned as you or your friends) is the inaccurate votes. I mean, that is a very simple fact to find and rate against the film. Certainly that should have been maintained correctly. Does the film change all that much by correctly representing the votes of Connecticut or other state representatives?

    I don’t know why Spielberg made the choices he made, and how the film would be affected by making “correct choices” in the eyes of historians. Like I said, the film has more symmetry and artistry and emotion by framing it between the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural as he did. And really, that is what a filmmaker deals with: artistry and story. Spielberg is not a documentarian, he is a filmmaker. Perhaps we should not get hung up on the little facts.

    1. We don’t have a Nat Geo subscription, so I haven’t been able to see it yet, even with On Demand. I think I’ll have to wait for the DVD. I’m hearing some good things about it, though. I think we have to remember always that a movie is a work of art, and the choices made are made with an artist’s eye, not with a historian’s eye. Look at Glory, for example. There were a number of historical errors in the film, including having the 54th Massachusetts charge in the wrong direction, but with those errors it tells a higher truth about African-American troops fighting for the freedom of their race and for their place in society. I think Spielberg’s Lincoln also tells a higher truth about the struggle against a racism that was endemic throughout the United States to end the blight of slavery once and for all in this country. I think you’re exactly right about the symmetry, artistry, and emotion (You get that from your mom 🙂 ). Brooks has highlighted some of the times Tony Kushner’s put his foot in his mouth trying to defend his script on historical grounds. I think that’s a huge mistake on Kushner’s part. If I were him, my answer would be, “Look, it’s not a history book, it’s a piece of art. I’m not a historian, I’m a Hollywood screenwriter. We made choices that we felt would make a more deeply emotional drama and a more entertaining experience for the audience. We tried to stay close to the accurate record, but in some cases we strayed because right or wrong we believed it would help our art.” Everyone can argue about whether or not a completely accurate historical account would be just as dramatic, or even more dramatic, but everyone else wasn’t one of the artists making this particular movie. We can all go to Rome, look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and say maybe Michaelangelo should have included this, that, or the other thing, but we weren’t the artist laying on his back for hours painting that ceiling. The results speak for themselves and speak to the artistic correctness of the choices made by the artists in both situations.

  2. It was interesting when I asked my The Immigrants Civil War facebook page fans about the NatGeo recreation, most ignored the question and just said they didn’t like Bill. I watched it. It was ok.

    1. I think a lot of reactions to the book and the movie were at least initially based on a visceral dislike of O’Reilly. I don’t watch the guy’s show so I really don’t have much of an opinion about him either way. I haven’t read his book, so I’m withholding judgment on it. I’m also withholding judgment on the movie until I can actually watch it. I did try to find it on On Demand, but I needed a subscription to NatGeo to watch it, which I don’t have.

  3. […] to arguments about the choices made by moviemakers, giving Masur and Jones an opening to argue. Al Mackey agrees that the tone of Jones’s response detracts from the message, although he remains […]

  4. Bill O’Reilly has a certain interest to me. I never met him, but we grew up a mile apart. I was in first grade at St Brigids parish school when he was graduating in 8th grade. I went to the same Catholic High School as he did as well. I have sometimes wondered how we wound up with such a different point of view. He lived in what we called Levittown. There were restrictive covenants in that section of town which barred nonwhites from living there. I lived in what we called The Village, which was Westbury proper. This area was roughly a third AfricanAmerican with a then much smaller Latino population. Years later, the white kids from Westbury who I still keep in contact with always say that growing up in a non-exclusive environment was a great advantage in dealing with real life. O’Reilly missed out on that advantage.

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