Lincoln: Politics in Media

History and the Headlines is provided by ABC-Clio, which is a series of free online resources. These materials provide authoritative information and engaging activities that help students and library users understand important events. This month they offer Lincoln: Politics in Media to coincide with the upcoming release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

History on Film
From 1981 to 2005, 13 of the 25 Oscar winners for Best Picture have been movies based in history. Over the same period, 32 of the 100 films nominated for Best Picture have had their basis in historical events. Both statistics testify to the continuing power and prestige of history as source material in the film business. Likewise, when members of a viewing audience see the familiar phrase “based on a true story” flash on the screen during the opening credit sequence, they tend to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the movie they are about to watch will deliver more significance than a pure fiction and will require a heightened level of attentive engagement and respect.

Explore our new Politics in Media lesson plan and Resource List.

Perhaps much of the appeal of history films has to do with an unsatisfied popular hunger for some sort of grounding in “truth” and “reality.” As a field of study, the level of interest in film and history mirrors the growing public appetite for historical representations on film and television. Reference guides, essay anthologies, and critical-theory works are now being published on a regular basis with respect to historical films. Typically a “history film” is defined, in very broad and loose terms, as either a “true story” or simply a period piece that conjures a bygone era (e.g., All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or The Searchers (1956)). The theory goes that, even if the narrative and characters are largely fictional, the setting is real and evocative enough to qualify the film as “historical.” Historical fiction films can be “read” or interpreted in different ways. The films can be used to gather information about the ideologies during the time in which they were created as well as the time the films are meant to represent. Indeed, virtually any film can be analyzed as a revealing “historical” document.

There are two types of history film that focus exclusively on the “true story”: the docudrama and the documentary. Films such as Dances With Wolves (1990), 127 Hours (2010), and Thirteen Days (2000) are examples of docudramas. Docudramas are films that streamline, distill, and simplify historical events. For example, docudrama narratives tend to focus on a single individual and therefore involve only a few main characters. This simplification results in the creation of fictional characters that may be composites of several historical figures. Docudramas might omit some participants in the real event altogether. This type of film simplifies historical events by creating clearly recognizable heroes and villains, exaggerating the characters’ moral characteristics and focusing more heavily on their internal or emotional struggles. Docudramas can assume conclusions about historical events with little supporting evidence. Filmmakers may structure the historical incident into a classic three-act drama that ends its story in the best light as far as storytelling is concerned. For example, in Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), the film ends before the title character is taken to England and marries John Rolfe. By providing audiences with a simplified narrative, the actual complexities of the historical event presented may be undermined. When they are being used for historical reference sources, these films may get both large and small and details wrong, either deliberately—to argue a partisan political point or drum up sympathy or antipathy for a particular person—or inadvertently, due to poor research or false assumptions. Ultimately, historical accuracy is a function of the filmmakers’ political and intellectual integrity and varies wildly depending on the persons involved and the lasting ideological significance of the historical event being depicted.

The popular perception is that a documentary film is far more objective and reliable a source of historical truth than a docudrama. This is, of course, rarely true. Documentaries can be susceptible to the same sorts of plot distortions that characterize docudramas. It can be argued that documentaries may be even more dangerously seductive because they appear to have a higher standard of providing strictly unbiased and truthful accounts of history. Documentaries have been perceived as accurate because they typically showcase authoritative and explanatory voice-overs, interviews with experts, archival footage, maps, still photography, and other sorts of visually compelling graphic evidence to prove their cases. The source materials are all real enough and the interviewees are supposedly sincere. However, documentary filmmakers can manipulate the story in a more subtle way—through what they insert or omit and how the film’s materials are edited. Finally both docudrama and documentary filmmakers can skew history by offering one partisan interpretation, or perhaps two simple, opposing interpretations, of an historical event when the event calls for many more points of view to do justice to its mysterious aspects, insoluble contradictions, and complexities.

In sum, a history film of any sort might be emotionally compelling, intellectually persuasive, and an artistic triumph, but none of these apparent strengths mean that it is good history.

Robert Niemi

Further Reading
Niemi, Robert. History in the Media: Film And Television

Compare Films about Abraham Lincoln (ones linked are available in the LVCCLD Library Catalog)

In addition to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, two other major Hollywood films featuring the president have recently been released. Research these five films that feature Abraham Lincoln as the main character or focus and then fill out the chart below, noting the release date and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating.

Movie Title
Release Date
MPAA Rating
Young Mr. Lincoln
Abe Lincoln in Illinois
The Conspirator
The Lincoln Conspiracy
The Day Lincoln Was Shot

After completing the table, answer the following questions.

1. Based on the title and description, which film do you find the most interesting? Why? How well is it rated?
2. Do you notice a difference in popularity between films with more realistic depictions of Lincoln versus less realistic depictions of the president?
3. Have you seen any films with Lincoln as a character that are not in this chart? Which ones?
4. Do you think any other presidents have had more screen time as a character than Lincoln? Why or why not?
5. If you were to make a film about Lincoln, what part of his life would you focus on?



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