Lights! Camera! History!

As a history professor, it’s a question people often ask me.

Is such and such movie historically accurate?

Where to begin?

Philip Zelikow from the University of Virginia recently began an opinion piece for the New York Times online by rippling with praise for Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, which focuses on Honest Abe’s political maneuvering leading up to the ratification the 13th amendment, which ended slavery.

According to Zelikow, the movie doesn’t just pass academic muster; it sets new standards for it.  Lincoln isn’t merely following the lead of good scholarship; it’s actually blazing a new path for academic historians to follow.  Zelikow tells us in no uncertain terms that Spielberg’s movie will, “actually advance the way historians will consider this subject.”

Wow, a real live history professor at a top notch university sanctifying the scholarly creds of a Steven Spielberg movie?

Well, not quite.

Zelikow has only sporadically been a professor.  Really, he is more of a professional political operative by trade, with one foot in academia and one foot out.  He has spent more time working as a lawyer and government official than he has as a professor.

Under George H.W. Bush, Zelikow served on the National Security Council.  Later on, he worked for George W. Bush’s transition team.  He then spent several years in government on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, in the State Department, and as Director of the 9/11 Commission.  Since 2007 he’s been on the Advisory Panel for Global Development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  He’s that kind of mover and shaker.

Zelikow has also been a university professor.  In addition to his J.D. degree, he has a Ph.D. in Law and Diplomacy from Tufts.  He has taught at Harvard and the University of Virginia, with three different stints at the latter as he bounced between academia and government work.

However, Zelikow taking to the Times to shower the new Spielberg movie  with cutting edge scholarly credibility is very problematic.  It’s not just that he has been a part time academic.  The thing is, we academics actually take our specialties very seriously.  And Zelikow’s area of focus, according to his own C.V., is the Modern world, 20th century U.S., and American foreign policy.

Not the Civil War.

In other words, Zelikow’s about as qualified to make this assessment as I am.  Arguably less so since I actually do this full time.  And as an Americanist who also doesn’t focus on the Civil War, I’m only marginally qualified.

So as a fellow non-specialist, I must say that at first glance Zelikow’s academic assertions vis a vis the movie strike me as rather absurd.  And I’m not alone.

A good and very respectful rejoinder, also in the Times online, came from Notre Dame Philosophy professor Garry Gutting.  In the politest fashion imaginable, Gutting points out that Zelikow’s assertion is essentially mularkey.

Meanwhile, City University of New York Graduate Center Associate Professor of Political Science Corey Robin doesn’t address Zelikow’s piece directly, and also isn’t anywhere near as polite as Gutting in assessing the film.  Rather, he thinks Lincoln is about thirty years behind academic scholarship in its understanding of slavery’s end.

Yes Virginia, the notion of Steven Spielberg blazing a path for academics is about as ridiculous as you first suspected.

But for my money, the heart of the problem is not that Zelikow takes his praises of Lincoln much too far.  Rather, it’s that the entire premise of linking the film with academic scholarship is flawed from the start.

It’s a false comparison.

It really should go without saying that historical fiction cinema is a very, very different medium than written academic history.  They have radically different methods and completely different goals.  Neither is an inherently “better” thing in any abstract sense of value or morality.  It’s just apples and oranges.

So saying a fictional movie will redefine historical scholarship is like saying X-Men comic books will redefine modern American jazz music.


Fictional movies are never, ever good history by definition, and that’s fine.  That’s not their goal, or at least it shouldn’t be.  Because regardless of how well researched, it’s still, you know, fiction.  It’s not documentary footage.  It’s make believe.  It’s a bunch of actors pretending and reading from a fictional script while John Williams’ orchestral score soars in the background.

Just shake your head and remember that fiction is not good academic history, even if it’s based on a true story.  Just like a good academic history book will never be Gone With the Wind, even if Clark Gable gives it a table read.

Which brings us back to that question I often get about movies being historically accurate.

What I always tell people is: That’s the wrong question.

It’s kind of like asking if the X-Men is good jazz.  Even if they do a special issue where Charlie Parker is a superhero, it’s still not the same thing.

That is to say, of course no movie is historically accurate, regardless of what details or larger ideas it gets right.  But we shouldn’t expect it to be.  Just like we shouldn’t expect an academic history book to have a score by John Williams.

We should simply accept each medium for what it actually is, measure it by that, and enjoy.

And for the record, I haven’t seen Lincoln.  While Spielberg’s an incredible craftsman, he often drives me nuts with his schmaltzy bullshit.  I frequently pass on his films.  But then again, I just love Daniel Day Lewis’ work, so I’m willing to give it a shot.  Maybe if it’s still playing in a couple of weeks.

Why the wait?

Hey, it’s a busy time of year for us full time professors, what with the semester winding down and finals coming up.  Gotta go grade some papers.

4 Responses to “Lights! Camera! History!”

  1. My students often asked me about this or that historical movie, and I replied that the only historical movie I actually liked was 300.

    Yup. the wildly fantastical tale of the Battle of Thermopylae, with the guy with the swords for hands, and the Ninja-looking dudes is my favorite BECAUSE the whole of the film (and the comic upon which it is based) is simply a story told by someone to rally the troops before a battle.

    It represents an actual historical phenomenon: the mythologization of an event, often taken to fantastic extremes (articulated very well in Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys) and for that I give the film a bit of respect. It is honest in saying “hey, this is just a good story. lets not get hung up on the details here” Will it further our understanding of Greek History? ah who cares. stabby stabby slow-motion jump stab. woo! funtimes.

    That’s why I have no particular interest in this film. I usually find that these sorts that take themselves too seriously (Elizabeth, for instance, or Amistad, or Braveheart, thats a popular one) are often painstakingly accurate in the details (maybe not so much Braveheart) but over and over are anachronistic in their ideas. Elizabeth I was portrayed as a second or third-wave feminist, Amistad had white people paraphrasing MLK Jr, and Braveheart had William Wallace babbling on about freedom and nationalism. it was the 11th century, not the 19th.

    But still. the bit where the guy yells out Freedom! and throws the sword and they all run in slow motion. that was cool.

  2. Ah, the crazy optimism, intense idealism and insanely honest scholarly approaches to the murky world of journalism in general and movie critics in particular to which you people adhere will never fail to astound me.

    I stopped reading the NY Times film criticism even long before I divested my reading brain of their verbose, self-aggrandizing, advertiser-pandering book reviews, lengthy, rambling tomes which come off looking more like jargonized book reports and amateur personal memoirs. And on that topic, there even exist some radical movie lovers who believe one should cast aside any thought of a review whatsoever before watching and experiencing the artwork firsthand. I would not go that far, however the Grey Lady et al is in the business of keeping grey ladies in business. Period.

    And what could be bigger business than a Spielberg blockbuster? And just in time for the holidays. Have you no Christmas spirit at all?

    That said, the flick will still clean up at the box office, as will this skillfully self-promoting and self-styled academic Zelikow at the various professional offices of life, though at the moment I am having real trouble deciding which topic is more academic at this point, as worlds collide and art takes a back seat, journalism or history.

  3. actually, upon reflection, i would argue that historical films that DONT take themselves seriously (300, that Marie Antoinette with the 21st century music et al) actually might do more to further the discipline than the movies that take themselves too seriously.

    In much the same way seeing The Fellowship of the Ring motivated me to read the novels, those watching obviously fictionalized films may be motivated to find out what really happened, and thus turn to academia.

    the films that take themselves too seriously, however, leave the audience with a satisfied sense of “well now i know what that was all about” and thereby pushes them away from academia, and probably toward more of the same.

    -shrug- its a thought

  4. I agree with that. The worst thing about “historically accurate” movies is precisely that; they create the illusion of being historically accurate.

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