“Lincoln” is a film directed by Steven Spielberg that was produced in 2012. A film about former president Abraham Lincoln, the film starred Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Lewis played Abraham Lincoln, with Field starring as Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady. Gordon-Levitt was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the president who attended Harvard and played a role in the Army. Strathairn had a highly political role as he depicted William Seward, the secretary of state during much of Lincoln’s presidency.
The film was a complex biography on Abraham Lincoln’s life, but it also focused on many of the issues that took place around the time that Lincoln took office. Lincoln’s life was especially tumultuous, as he presided in office while slavery was at its height and made several important decisions during the Civil War. Lincoln, of course, was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, and the film tells the story both of his life and his untimely death. The film’s initial focus is on the Emancipation Proclamation and some of the political gamesmanship that took place after its formation and conceptualization. Lincoln wanted to free the slaves quickly, but he and his fellow Republicans feared that their efforts would be stifled by political enemies who sought to take out their aggression on the rest of the country. The film centers on the back and forth that takes place between Lincoln and several political allies, as he is looking to build support for a constitutional amendment banning slavery. He is often forced to consider a wide range of different things, though, and he is forced to confront the reality that radical Republicans who support him will not go for any solution that allows slavery to stay intact. The film concludes with Lincoln letting Confederate leaders know that slavery could not continue, and it traces its way through the end of the Civil War. Finally, the film shows that Lincoln has been assassinated, the final culmination of his work and his life as something of a political adventurer.
One of the primary strengths of this film, and what made it a real winner for me, was the quality of acting. Daniel Day Lewis played an exceptional Abraham Lincoln. He both had the look and the demeanor, displaying the ways in which Lincoln had to deftly maneuver in order to get his political agenda passed during a tough time in politics. Likewise, I liked the ways in which this film painted the picture of Lincoln’s internal struggle. It shows him meeting with individual members of the Union Army, and it even showed him making some contact with black soldiers. The film made an effort to show Lincoln as the calculated, reflective individual that he apparently was. Lincoln’s decision on slavery had many different elements. It was one part moralism and another part political expediency (Goodwin). The goal of the film was to show the many sides of Lincoln and ensure that people understood the political side of the decision to end slavery. I especially liked the ways in which the film showed the political aspect without getting bogged down in the difficult details.
The film raises tremendous issues and questions, but this is not exactly a weakness. For instance, it asks the question of just how much Lincoln was driven by his sense of moral justice and how much his decision to end slavery was driven by political motives. It makes the viewer question whether this inquiry even matters. If Lincoln was doing the right thing, does it really matter why he was doing so? In reality, his decision to end slavery had every bit as much of an effect on the people of the United States regardless of his ultimate motivation.
One of the aspects of the film that I did not particularly enjoy was the way in minimizes the death of Lincoln. Lincoln’s life was, of course, quite spectacular, and one could hardly expect the filmmakers to focus the bulk of their attention on the man’s death. Still, it seemed as if the death was an afterthought to the actual story. In reality, Lincoln’s death was every bit as much of the story as his life. It is important because it shows the real courage that it took for Lincoln to argue for reform. In the United States, a wide range of leaders who have spoken up for any kind of racial justice have been gunned down. From Lincoln to both Kennedys to Martin Luther King, Jr., this is a part of the enduring legacy of the United States. The fact that Lincoln paid with his life for his brave decision is an important aspect of Lincoln’s life that must be considered when one is thinking about Lincoln’s life. If I had been writing this movie or directing it, I would have focused more time on the death and its bigger implications.
With any film dealing with history, there are bound to be claims that the film distorted the real story, or, in some cases, made outright changes to suit an agenda. Lincoln was true to form in many regards, but there were some instances where the filmmaker stretched the truth in order to make a point and make the film more entertaining, too. One part of the film that is especially dramatized is the one where the two soldiers are reciting the Gettysburg address to Lincoln. This scene is designed to serve as something of an “ah-ha” moment for Lincoln. He hears a black soldier reciting his words, and the filmmakers use this device to show Lincoln making some important recognitions. According to many historians, this scene never took place. Many argue that it could not have taken place, either, because soldiers would not have been given that kind of unfettered access to the president. Likewise, many argue that while the Gettysburg address has been memorized by many today, it was not given the kind of wide acclaim back then. There is little chance that any person would have taken the time to memorize it during that period.
One of the most egregious changes to the real history of the time came when Spielberg and company changed the tally numbers on the vote to end slavery. In order to create more drama and try to emphasize the split in the country at the time, Spielberg got very creative, noting that some congress members voted “nay” on the amendment when they actually voted for the amendment. This could be seen as a biased move designed to depict the situation as more dire than it actually was. It could also be seen as a device used to make the movie more interesting. Whatever the case, the film’s creators did toy with this part of history, as it appears that the actual vote was much different than how it was portrayed.
There were many scenes involving congressman Thaddeus Stevens that were highly dramatized. While the film gets many things right about his contentious relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, it is highly unlikely that they ever had a public spat like the one in the movie (Paludan). Likewise, historians suggest that Lincoln, while highly political in nature, would not have been observing House meetings from above. The movie uses this to highlight the fight between the two, but this is a liberty that the creators took in order to add more conflict. Likewise, Stevens himself is highly dramatized in a way that was probably not true. He is shown as being more contentious and disrespectful than he was in real life.
Likewise, the film botches the ending on how Lincoln looked when he died. In the film, Lincoln dies in his night gown, looking very comfortable. In real life, Lincoln died naked, as the doctors had been looking at his wounds in order to try and save his life (Nicolay). While this may seem like a small thing, it is another sign of how the film’s creators simply threw in the president’s death as something of an add-on to the movie.
It would be difficult to suggest that the film adds anything to the public consciousness on Abraham Lincoln. As one of the most popular presidents of all-time, Lincoln has been highly studied and scrutinized by all sorts of different people over the last century and a half. What the film does do, however, is highlight some of the truths on Lincoln. It also brings out the personality of his wife and family members more than any other work. These are the characters that are often forgotten by history, but the film shows the ways that they played an important role both in Lincoln’s life and in the political debate that raged on during that time.
The film helps to “color” Lincoln. By this, it is meant that the film adds detail and helps to create the kind of complex picture that truly respects who Lincoln was as both a president and as a man. Throughout the film, Lincoln is shown as a person willing to listen to many different perspectives. He is also showed as a highly political man. In some parts of the academic world, there is a tendency to romanticize about Lincoln. This film does its fair share of that, but one area where it refuses to romanticize is on the question of Lincoln’s willingness to engage in political interplay. As the film’s creators show, Lincoln is every bit as involved in the political fray as those around him. This is perhaps the reason why Lincoln was able to negotiate one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of America.
This film brings about a wide range of different lessons that can be learned. It is a film that treats history with a complex brush. The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and other Lincoln-related events are often dealt with in history books with a very simplistic approach. Rather than viewing the situation as a complex one that demanded lots of political maneuvering, those books paint the president’s decision as a simple one. Any person viewing this movie will know much more about Lincoln, his decision-making processes, and the things that caused him to want to put an end to slavery. While the movie is not completely true to history, it is true enough to history that it can be used to supplement any academic discussion on the nature of Lincoln. Overall, it is a strong film, and the presence of Daniel Day Lewis makes it even stronger. Lewis gives Lincoln the kind of performance that he needs, and the creators of the film were willing to stay true enough to history so that “Lincoln” would not become a biased farce of a film.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln. SimonandSchuster. com, 2005.
- Nicolay, John George, and John Hay. Abraham Lincoln: a history. Vol. 10. Century Company, 1917.
- Paludan, Phillip Shaw. The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.