I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?
History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.
At its best, historical fiction can be a wonderful window into the past. If you would like to be vastly entertained while getting a real sense of what mid-18th century England was like, you can’t beat the movie of Tom Jones. The Hornblower novels of C. S. Forrester are, likewise, an accurate as well as page-turning introduction to the realities of the Nelsonian Royal Navy. (But stay far, far away from the recent television dramatization of the Hornblower saga. It was appallingly, insulting-to-the-intelligence ahistorical, like a symphony played with half the instruments out of tune.)
All this is in introduction to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opened last month to great reviews. It is historical fiction, to be sure, but like the best historical fiction it is a window into a lost world of the past, in this case the final months of the Civil War.
There are occasions when the movie parts company with historical reality for its own, legitimate purposes, as the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer pointed out in the Daily Beast. Mary Todd Lincoln would never have listened to debates in the House of Representatives in 1865, still less accompanied by her black servant. Thanks to gas light, the interiors would have been much better lit than they appear in the movie. The Gettysburg Address had not yet become iconic. Lincoln did not appear on the 50-cent piece. (Indeed only allegorical figures appeared on American coinage until 1909, when Lincoln was put on the penny to celebrate his hundredth birthday.)
But none of that matters. Daniel Day-Lewis’s amazing portrayal of Lincoln brings the 16th president to life as, say, Daniel Chester French’s magnificent statue in the Lincoln Memorial could never do. French’s statue is the Lincoln of legend, the quite literally larger-than-life figure who saved the Union. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is the story-telling, disheveled, deceptively shrewd prairie lawyer with the emotionally unstable wife. He is the Lincoln who fought his personal demons every day, kept his fractious, ambitious cabinet under firm but subtle control, and practiced down-and-dirty politics with genius to achieve his goals.
The other characters are also extremely well portrayed (especially Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, and Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones). The settings and scenes, especially the killing field around Petersburg and the petitioner-clogged halls of the White House, could hardly be better.
If you would like to know the historical Lincoln, there are a thousand biographies. Perhaps the best recent one is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. But if you would like to get a glance of the real Lincoln, the human Lincoln, you must see the movie. It is a masterpiece.