The release of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln, continues a long cinematic tradition of representing history on the silver screen. Why do moviemakers keep producing films that portray the past?
Mark Miller | Online Editor
The cinematic giant Steven Spielberg is at it again — this time with a dramatic portrait of America’s 16th president in the recent film Lincoln. Released nationwide on Nov. 9, the movie presents the last few months in the life of Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and focuses on the climax of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. With its base in Team of Rivals, a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin published in 2005, Lincoln represents “Honest Abe” as a man of flesh and blood — not an idealization, but a political and historical hero worthy of recognition.
“Most people these days learn their history from the screen rather than a book,” said Robert A. Rosenstone, professor of history at the California Institute of Technology and a lifelong film enthusiast. Among his repertoire of books written, Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed served as the basis for the Academy Award winning movie Reds (1981).
Rosenstone mentioned the assumption that history books present the truth while films fictionalize. Drawing on the Latin word fictio (“to create”), Rosenstone explained the apparent overlap between the two: “Any historian takes facts from the past and creates a history.” If 10 different historians would try to write an account about a certain historical event, they would come up with 10 different histories full of nuances that tell the same story. Rosenstone sees history films as legitimate when the “invention” (a term he prefers over “fiction”) carries out what could have happened in real life.
Rosenstone said movie makers behind historical films tend to “raise questions that are still pertinent to the present,” mentioning the 2012 Ben Affleck film Argo. While the action of the film occurs during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, Argo’s applicability fits right into the present as it deals with the reality of terrorism, something viewers today can understand well. Upon reflecting on the arrival of Lincoln, Rosenstone said he thinks Spielberg is “obsessed with the past like historians are,” considering the amount of movies he has dedicated to historical themes.
A graduate of the American Film Institute (AFI) in LA, Brandon Hess, recently paralleled Spielberg on a smaller scale with his short film “First in Flight.” For his thesis film at AFI, Hess wrote the screen play for this 30-minute representation of the Wright Brothers’ ground-breaking achievement in aviation. With a team of fellow AFI students and many others, Hess directed “First in Flight” to show the two famous brothers, Orville (Aaron Farb) and Wilbur (Tony Hale), in a new light. Set to music created by acclaimed composer James Horner, the short film takes place in the final hours of Wilbur’s life as the brothers flash back to key moments in their lives and reconcile through their memories — both the tough times and the phenomenal.
Hess explained that the idea for “First in Flight” originally came from a conversation he had with his dad over the breakfast table in seventh grade. “It seemed strange to me that no one had made a film about them [the Wright Brothers],” Hess said. “I feel like their story was just waiting for me to tell it.” The Wright Brothers’ story doesn’t merely hold historical significance for Hess; it also offers spiritual significance: “to awaken people to dream again and to let there be a renaissance of ingenuity and passion, to have the spirit of the Wright Brothers released.”
The world premiere of “First in Flight” screened at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in LA on Nov. 15. Through fresh representations of seasoned stories, moviemakers continue to delve into the past, looking for a message for today’s audiences. With gems from the goldmine of history, filmmakers today are making history.