Some Thoughts About Spielberg’s Lincoln

We go to the movies to be entertained and transported to a different time and place.  That certainly happened for me while watching Steven Spielberg’s movie about Lincoln and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. That’s not such an easy thing to do when you’ve spend the better part of the last 15 years reading and writing about the period.  Historians look for complexity and and a certain attention to detail that reflects a careful consideration of the past.  I certainly did, but at the same time we would do well to remember that these kinds of questions rarely arise when watching films about other subjects.

The film fits neatly into the Civil War sesquicentennial with its emphasis on emancipation as the central problem that must be solved as opposed to the preservation of the Union.  Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln as the central actor in this drama and one that certainly deserves an Oscar nomination.  He somehow manages to make Lincoln appealing and even worthy of his place in our collective memory without mythologizing him.  Indeed, one of the movie’s strengths is that it depicts Lincoln as one player (albeit an important one) in that not-so-well-oiled machine that is the legislative process.  Lincoln does his best to help to steer the amendment through Congress with the help of Thadeus Stevens, portrayed persuasively by Tommie Lee Jones.  We see the messiness of it all, but we also get a sense of Lincoln’s and Stevens’s sincere interest in ending slavery once and for all.

Eric Foner recently criticized the film because it fails to show that it was the abolitionists, who were originally behind the Thirteenth Amendment and not Lincoln.  Kate Masur also takes issue with what she sees as a narrow understanding of how emancipation came about.  For Masur, more attention could have been given to the activities of slaves in freeing themselves and free blacks in the nation’s capital.  The criticisms of both historians should come as no surprise given their recent scholarship.  Foner recently published a wonderful biography of Lincoln and slavery and Masur’s book on emancipation in Washington, D.C. is a must read.  I am not so concerned about these supposed shortcomings.  First, the movie is not about the history of emancipation and the black population of D.C.  The self-emancipation theme is clearly visible in the opening battle scene as well as that silly scene where Lincoln is chatting with both black and white soldiers about the war.

I am more concerned about the portrait of Lincoln that the viewer is left with, which is tied directly to the time frame of the movie.  We see Lincoln at the end of a very long and at times confusing process that extends back to his early years in which he expressed views about African Americans that may be shocking for some of us to hear today.  At one point in the movie Elizabeth Keckley asks Lincoln what he thinks African Americans should do once they are freed.  If she asked that question two years earlier Lincoln likely would have advised her and others that colonization was their best option.  I point this out not as a criticism of the movie, but as an opportunity for further discussion in the classroom.  Does the movie take us a step back to the myth of Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator”?

What I loved most about the movie was the debate on the House floor.  I’ve said before that one of the most difficult things to teach is the pervasiveness of racism throughout the country at this time.  This comes through clearly in the movie as politicians argue passionately about the consequences of emancipation for white Americans.  Blacks will compete for jobs, marry white women, and perhaps one day even vote.  While the movie effectively captures the importance of ending slavery the discerning viewer will also be left with the challenges that the nation still faces.  For some it may even serve as a reminder of the level of violence witnessed in the north as tens of thousands of southern blacks made their way to cities at the turn of the century in pursuit of a better life.

Finally, it is impossible not to see this movie as commentary on our own political challenges.  If we learn anything it is that the only way to get anything done in Washington is through compromise, but that need not preclude embracing moral principles.

Other thoughts:

  • This is a very dark movie.
  • Just a little too long.
  • Loved the interaction between Lincoln and his sons.  I was intrigued enough to order Jason Emerson’s new biography, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln.
  • Sally Field gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, though it would be nice if we also walked away with the impression that her husband may also have been difficult to live with.
  • The last few minutes from Lee’s surrender to the assassination seemed to be strung together last minute.  Perhaps they should have ended the movie with the carriage ride.
  • Oh, and did I mention how ridiculous that opening scene with Lincoln chatting with the soldiers was?

I went to see the movie Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and the theater was fairly crowded.  The audience applauded at the end and I overheard some interesting conversations on the way out.  All in all, I loved it.

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23 comments… add one
  • Will Lentry Nov 6, 2020 @ 16:38

    Great piece and very fair. So good in fact that I am sure you would like to know about a typo that needs correcting in such a fine article. In the 4th sentence the word ‘and’ is typed back to back as follows: “Historians look for complexity AND AND a certain attention to detail that”…”. Thanks for an enjoyable read!

  • Ernest Nov 24, 2012 @ 11:09

    I thought it was good, not great. Someone mentioned a “Band of Brothers-Style” series on Lincoln. I think that would be a good idea, but I was disappointed that they chose only to focus on the ratification of the 13th Amendment. How do you make a movie about Lincoln, who was president during the Civil War and not feature more of the war? I would have liked to see Spielberg do a full-bio of Lincoln from his younger days to his death. It would’ve been longer, but with a mini-series treatment (think “John Adams”) I think it would’ve worked brilliantly. I also left the theater wondering if this would lead some to believe that Lincoln was in fact the “Great Emancipator” when he wasn’t. It was entertaining, and I felt I got my moneys worth, but I think it could have been a lot better, especially considering Spielberg’s reputation.


  • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 24, 2012 @ 5:02

    I hesitate to call the scene with Lincoln and the Black and White soldiers “silly.” I’m just glad they featured a Black soldier in a miltary unit other than the 54th Massachusetts.

    I saw the movie with my History Club (we watch historiy movies and documenatries and discuss them) and we wondered if it really happened at all. Maybe that is what you mean when you called it silly. I liked it better than the way they wrapped up the movie with the assassination. But as far as I know, every movie with Lincoln as a major player includes the assassination. So to leave it out would have seemed incomplete. I’m just glad they didn’t include Booth because we all know who did it.

    I think it’s interesting the movie begins with the Gettysburg Address and ends with the Second Inaugural. So the movie is like a living Lincoln Memorial (those to speeches are on the walls flanking Lincoln’s statue). Daniel Day-Lewis looked so much like Lincoln that for me, it was like seeing the photos I’ve seen of Lincoln for years come to life. And I really like that the film showed the iconic, immortalized, marbelized, god-like President in some very human moments: sitting down and speaking face-to-face with his soldiers. Telling jokes and using profanity. Arguing with Mary (she won the Academy award for that scene). Slapping his son. I’m Just glad they didn’t show him with his pants down sitting in an outhouse. 🙂

  • Joan Stack Nov 23, 2012 @ 23:09

    Hi Kevin,
    I enjoyed your review, and as an art historian currently working on Civil War imagery and Missouri history, I had a different, but perhaps complementary take on this movie. I posted the following on my facbook page:

    I just saw the new movie “Lincoln,” and thought it was worth thinking about. Reviews of Lincoln have been generally good. Almost all center around well-deserved praise of Daniel Day Lewis’ inspired and inspiring portrayal of the president. Rarely have reviewers commented on the vision of director Steven Spielberg, an artist capable of awe inspiring visuals and powerfully poignant
    dramatic action.
    Viewers, however, often have problems with “artistic” interpretations of history. They long for the impossible: “true” visions of past events. Many cannot accept the idea that imaginative fictional artworks can inspire historical insight. As an art historian, I’m obviously accustomed to artistic manipulation of reality. This obviously affects the way I approached Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

    As I watched this film, I noticed numerous examples of artistic liscence that contradicted the historical record. Unlike some viewers, I saw no reason to take offense. For example as someone interested in Missouri Civil War history, I know that in 1865, eight of Missouri’s nine elected congressmen were neither Democrats nor Republicans. They were “Unionists” or “Unconditional Unionists” (parties popular in the Civil War Border States). These confusing political affiliations were left out of the film, and a fictional conservative Republican, Josiah “Beanpole” Burton, was invented to represent Missouri. This manipulation of facts advances the drama, since the complexities of nineteenth-century political parties would be a distraction from the major themes of the film.

    Yet agenda driven viewers are often confused by such license. Many decry fictionalization while at the same time insisting on a propagandistic promotion of a laundry-list of politicized themes. Such commentators might prefer a television docudrama with no artistic pretensions. Lincoln doesn’t fit that description. Its messages are mixed. Like much good art, it leaves the viewer a bit confused as to exactly what he or she should think. While the script communicates much of the film’s meaning, other ideas are transmitted non-verbally. Viewers often soak in such visual messages intuitively.

    In the opening battle scene, for instance, black and white soldiers struggle in hand-to-hand combat through mud and rain in a tangled melee of bayonets and bodies. There is none of Saving Private Ryan’s hand-held camera work or unflinching intimacy. Instead we have a god’s eye view that reads like an animated ancient Roman relief, a confused tangle of men engaged in epic, unfocused struggle.

    The muddy battle is emblematic. It calls to mind the opening of Dickens’s Bleak House, in which the mud in London’s streets becomes a metaphor for the inhumane bureaucratic impediments of the sluggish English court system. Likewise, the sludge that hampers Spielberg’s soldiers embodies the mire of obstacles that pollute and stall martial peace and political progress. As Lincoln tries to end the Civil War and constitutionally abolish slavery, the convoluted machinations of politicians and politicos “muddy” the process.

    Likewise an invisible morass seems to hinder the movements of Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln as the film progresses. The sixteenth president trudges ever more slowly as time passes. As though wading through oatmeal, he shuffles and slouches through the film. By the drama’s end he hardly seems able to move. Cowed and arthritic, he becomes a human reflection of a country exhausted and almost overwhelmed by war and the birthing pains of societal change. Yet this Lincoln continues to lumber forward. His rhetoric and humor animates and inspires. On rare occasions, charismatic passion energizes this tired yet persistent president. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine this weather-beaten character living to tackle the quagmire of Reconstruction.

    Throughout Lincoln the cloudy winter cityscape reflects the oppressive political and social environment. On the rare occasions when the sun shines, its rays wash out color. Sunlight pours into dimly-lit rooms. Back lit figures are outlined or silhouetted against halos of glare. The over-exposed, almost monochrome cinematography confuses the eye and creates graphic contrast. Such effects suggest the ambiguity and intensity of the drama.

    Indeed bright color is almost absent from the film. The exception is blue. Many shots look as though they were filmed through a blue filter, and occasionally such elements a Mary Todd Lincoln’s stunning sapphire-colored dress enliven the drab color scheme. The spectator can decide whether this blue tinged imagery reflects Lincoln’s Unionist universe. It is certainly an aestheticized vision . . . but what else would you expect from an artist?

  • Chris Evans Nov 23, 2012 @ 15:29

    I was highly, highly impressed. I thought Daniel Day Lewis was superb. He seemed more Lincoln than even Lincoln was. He made the character so three dimensional. He really was ably supported because the other roles were played with so much verve and excitement. Everyone seemed to be really into playing their characters well. Tommy Lee Jones was simply great as Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Fields was a excellent Mary Todd, the three lobbyists were played by such wonderful character actors that they sprang completely to life.

    I wish Bruce McGill could have been used more somehow. I thought he was extremely convincing in his few scenes as Stanton. I was very moved by the scene of Stanton and Lincoln waiting for news from Fort Fisher and his reaction to Lincoln telling another story I thought was hilarious.

    As someone mentioned above Jackie Earle Haley was very good in his role as Alexander Stephens. I even thought he resembled him. I also liked David Strathairn as Seward. Heck, this movie even had a great Tad portrayal in it! The scene of Lincoln and Tad at the very beginning is very, very moving. The final blowup between Robert Lincoln and Abraham is very startling in its intensity and well played by both actors.

    All of this greatness made me long for a ‘Band of Brothers’ length miniseries on Lincoln with these actors.

    The scenes in the House of Representatives were great showing the chaos of our Democratic system and that there never was really ‘good old days’ when every single person pulled together to do something. There always has to be give and take.

    I thought a good place to close the movie down would have been as Lincoln ambled out of the White House.

    If a person is fascinated by America or American history the movie is truly a can’t miss.


  • Brad Nov 23, 2012 @ 13:25

    I saw it last night and loved it, spellbound actually. The opening scene is hokey for sure. Lewis IS Lincoln. Case closed. In my mind it’s Lincoln as we imagined him come to life. I would have ended the movie with the walk down the hall or Stanton’s “ages” statement. I understand what Speilberg is trying to do with the Second Inaugural but it wasn’t completely necessary.

    Acting was superb throughout. Although he had a small role, the actor playing Stephens did a very good job.

  • Pat Young Nov 23, 2012 @ 10:41

    Brief note on the Union v. Emancipation discussion. The film is set during the last five months of the war, so emancipation and reconstruction would have been more salient themes than Union per se. By 1865 there was little question that the South would be maintained within the Union.

  • Paul Taylor Nov 23, 2012 @ 8:51

    Kevin, you make this observation:

    “The film fits neatly into the Civil War sesquicentennial with its emphasis on emancipation as the central problem that must be solved as opposed to the preservation of the Union.”

    I agree that the emancipation cause is what is currently in vogue from a scholarship perspective. (See Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten.Based on source material though, is is not fair to say that for Lincoln and vast majority of the north, preservation of the Union was their primary concern throughout the war? If so, then is not the current “emphasis on emancipation” possibly a case of presentism based on modern ideals?

    Haven’t seen the film yet but am looking forward to seeing it this weekend.

  • Lyle Smith Nov 23, 2012 @ 8:23
  • GBrasher Nov 23, 2012 @ 7:28

    Wholeheartedly agreed on almost all accounts. I’ve got my own review going up soon, because I think it is important for us to respond to Foner and Masur. I’ve got to say that I think Hari Jones pretty much nails it in his review too. I also agree with you about the ending, although i think the last shot should have been the one of him walking down the stairs. If you’ve seen John Ford’s classic “Young Mr. Lincoln” (in which Henry Fonda is pretty great in his own right), you are familiar with the final shot of that film. Spielberg is a huge move buff, so I saw that scene as an homage to Ford, and felt it would have been the perfect ending to bookend the movie with Ford’s. By the way, the movie also had audiences applauding at the end even down here in Alabama. I was particularly happy with that.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2012 @ 7:37

      I thought Hari Jones nailed it as well. Good point re: paying homage to Ford. Nice to hear that the movie is getting a positive response in Bama. Can’t say I am surprised.

      • Ken Noe Nov 23, 2012 @ 8:05

        It got applause in my end of Alabama as well. I can’t remember the last time I heard that in a movie theater. “Saving Private Ryan,” I think, another Spielberg film that would have been even stronger without the bookend scenes.

  • Keith Muchowski Nov 23, 2012 @ 7:26

    Kushner’s script was absolutely a commentary on our own time. One could say the same about any historical novel or film, but it is especially true here.

    I have been looking forward to the Robert T. Lincoln for awhile. Last spring my wife and I were at Arlington House and were making our way down from the Lee Mansion through the cemetery when we came upon his headstone. We found it intriguing that he was buried within stone’s distance of the Lincoln Memorial. He died in 1926, just four years after the dedication, at which he was of course in attendance.

  • Woodrowfan Nov 23, 2012 @ 7:18

    My wife and I are hoping to go see “Skyfall” and “Lincoln” this weekend. Could make one of the most confusing movie mash-ups ever!

  • Bummer Nov 23, 2012 @ 6:49

    Some of Hollywood’s Lincolns include; Huston, McGlynn, Carradine, Massey, Fonda, Holbrook, Abraham, Robards and several others. All gave inspiring performances of the time. Spielberg’s Lincoln, Day-Lewis, in Bummer’s opinion, is so unique in character and temperament that the Oscar is the least of awards and acclaim that should be achieved.


  • Rob Wick Nov 23, 2012 @ 5:12

    You will enjoy Jason Emerson’s book. It will now be the standard life of Robert Todd Lincoln. Emerson is one of the bright new stars in Lincoln studies.


  • Pat Young Nov 23, 2012 @ 4:53

    I loved the movie too. While I appreciate Eric Foner’s opinion, his movie would be twice as long. Since 80% of Tony Kushner’s script was not used, perhaps a prequel is on the way that hits some of the issues critics have raised. All in all, a film my non-history buff friends have enjoyed as much as I have.

    • Woodrowfan Nov 23, 2012 @ 7:17

      Have Peter Jackson make it. It’ll be 9 hours long, in three parts, and would be filmed in New Zealand. 😉

      • Jimmy Dick Nov 23, 2012 @ 8:08

        Jackson’s version would be supportive of the Lost Cause because he only films fiction.

        • Woodrowfan Nov 23, 2012 @ 13:27

          Well, Galdalf the Grey was replaced by Gandalf the White, so I guess that fits…. So the Balrog is Grant or Sherman?

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