Gary Gutting: Learning History at the Movies

Roundup: Talking About History

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone.

Movies are the source of much of what we know — or think we know — about history. Currently, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is being recommended as a source of knowledge not just about Lincoln and the Civil War but also about politics in general. For example, Ruth Marcus, writing in The Washington Post, has praised the “instructional value” of the film for both President Obama and the current lame-duck Congress. “It presents,” she says, “useful lessons in the subtle arts of presidential leadership and the practice of politics, at once grimy and sublime.” David Brooks has similarly endorsed the film, and in a post in the Civil War series Disunion, the historian Philip Zelikow explains how the film may have actually put forward its own plausible interpretation of the events surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment. But there are limits to the extent that we can rely on movies to convey historical truth.

Like most popular historical movies, “Lincoln” is not a documentary, but a dramatic presentation. It tells an engaging story, depicts fascinating characters, and has sets and costumes that seem to take us back to Washington in 1865. But to what extent can we trust “Lincoln” (or any other dramatization of history for popular entertainment) as a source of historical fact and understanding? A film drama can present historical events, vividly and movingly perhaps, but it has no place for evidence supporting the truth of the presentation. As a result, simply looking at the movie, we have no way of knowing to what extent “Lincoln” is accurate. This applies to particular details (did Thaddeus Stephens actually wear a wig and have a black mistress?) but most important to the overall interpretation: was Lincoln really a noble politician, reluctantly using patronage and countenancing bribery to achieve a greater good?...

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