Getting Right With Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

I have never liked the “docudrama,” whether on television or in films–“too much ‘drama,’ not enough ‘docu,'” the historian in me grumped. And yet, without question the modern master of the epic “docudrama”/message movie is Steven Spielberg (“Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List”). So, it was with mixed emotions that, on the day after Thanksgiving, we drove to the local multiplex to catch Spielberg’s widely-heralded “Lincoln,” his take on a crucial slice of the great man’s life, set mainly during January 1865, with the War winding down and Congress considering a constitutional amendment that, if ratified, would end slavery in the United States. The lengths to which Lincoln goes to secure passage of the amendment in the House of Representatives, the ways he balances resorting to political sleaze with attempting to maintain his grip on the moral high ground, is the theme of the film.

The movie hardly offers a textbook picture of how the government is supposed to operate, and anyone predisposed to view Abraham Lincoln as “saintly” will probably be shocked–I tell you, shocked!–to watch him finagle, plot, scheme, and twist arms on behalf of what was, in his mind, the only possible moral choice, in ways that might make Lyndon B. Johnson envious were he still with us to see it. Any viewer with even a superficial understanding of the events described will know the outcome, of course, but Spielberg manages nevertheless to generate considerable drama, suspense, and even humor (mostly through the stories Lincoln tells, often at times that will strike some viewers as inappropriate, even incongruous).

Star Daniel Day-Lewis is a marvel as Lincoln. I knew that contemporaries described Lincoln as having a “high-pitched” voice, and that Day-Lewis had done his own research on the man he was to portray, so I wondered how he would translate that to film. Not to worry: Day-Lewis deftly avoids making the President sound like a castrato, creating instead a voice that just rings “right,” whether his Lincoln is speaking to the Cabinet, playing with his young son, appealing to reluctant Republican pols for support on the amendment, trying to jolly his wife out of her melancholia, or giving a pep talk to the crew of political bucaneers Secretary of State William Seward has employed on his behalf to round up votes by hook or by crook. I’ve always admired actor Sam Waterston’s voiceover “performance” of Lincoln in Ken Burns’ epic series, “The Civil War,” but Waterston’s rendering of Lincoln, while certainly moving at times (for example, his reading of the Gettysburg Address), comes across as rather stagy and stilted compared to Day-Lewis’ approach.

And the skill of the makeup artists! Day-Lewis is Lincoln, physically–tall, lanky, shambling in his walk, never seeming to know what to do with his hands (except that he is consistently reluctant to put gloves on them, despite the best efforts of his wife and his valet). The second best makeup job has to be the way David Strathairn was transformed into the compact, natty, energetic, and forceful Secretary Seward.

Although Tommy Lee Jones seems too hulking to be Thaddeus Stevens, he nevertheless owns the character–regardless of the fact that, through Jones, Stevens, a Pennsylvanian, speaks with a definite southwestern twang. Jones steals virtually every scene he’s in, especially one near the end of the film, where director Spielberg cleverly explains why Stevens “borrows” the original copy of the proposed amendment, with the clerk’s tally of the vote on it, to take home with him, providing a sort of cinematic grace note for this most maligned of Radical Republicans. Even those who know enough about Stevens to be one step ahead of the director here still will appreciate Spielberg’s deft approach to this scene.

Like Gore Vidal’s historical novel Lincoln, “Lincoln” is quite “talky.” “The War” itself, or at least its drums, trumpets, and much of its bloodshed, is very much off stage for most of the film, and Spielberg’s focus on the politics of Emancipation means that words matter. Given the nature of the issue selected for emphasis, as beautifully honed by screenwriter Tony Kushner, viewers need to be prepared for lots of conversation–Cabinet discussions, Congressional debates, rumors and gossip relayed by one pol to another. Kushner manages to create dialogue that clearly frames the arguments for and against passage of the amendment abolishing slavery. Those in the audience who do not enter the theatre expecting to see the sequel to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” should be able to grasp the terms of the debate, provided they pay attention, especially to the views of Lincoln himself.

The film is not perfect. Sally Field gives her all to her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, but Kushner’s script unfortunately reduces her to something of a “Mary One-Note,” a much harried wife pursued by demons, of the mental and political variety, bewailing the tragedies that have befallen the Lincoln family in general and herself in particular. On the other hand, the fact that Field spends most of her screen time in various stages of emotional distress allows Day-Lewis to demonstrate an impressive range of moods as the President tries to calm his spouse, including a powerful scene when, with a storm raging outside their room, Lincoln finally loses patience and unloads on the hapless Mary.

I found the opening scene, where Lincoln is speaking to some soldiers after a battle, to be surprisingly clunky. It seems that four of the troops, two black, two white, earlier had been at Gettysburg to hear him deliver his famous Address, and, without his prompting, they take turns reciting the words he had spoken on that occasion, while the President listens, increasingly bemused. I suppose we are to assume that the soldiers either had been physically near enough to Lincoln to have heard his speech, unlikely in an age before electronic voice amplification; or, that they had spent time between skirmishes memorizing his words, which hardly seems likely. Spielberg seems to be suggesting here that the “common soldier” understood where the President “was coming from” (as opposed to a number of Lincoln’s political foes, who are portrayed as being so tangled in ideology that they badly underestimate both the President’s commitment to Emancipation and his determination to use every weapon at his disposal to bring it about), but there had to have been a more believable way to make the point.

I also wish Spielberg had ended the picture earlier. Despite the fact that the film’s focus is on the process of passing the Thirteenth Amendment, the director evidently felt he had to include Lincoln’s assassination, but the way he does it, while certainly clever enough, is both puzzling and anticlimactic. We are at a theatre, but it quickly becomes clear that the play is not “Our American Cousin,” the play Lincoln was watching at the time of his “rendezvous with destiny” at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Instead, Tad Lincoln, not his father, is in the audience for this play, whatever it is, when someone comes onstage to announce that the President has been shot, and we watch as young Master Lincoln understandably has a total meltdown. At this point, Spielberg switches to the room where the wounded President has been carried following Booth’s attack, and we hear the physician pronouncing Lincoln dead and Secretary of War Stanton sonorously intoning, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

A better place to have concluded the film, in my view at any rate, came a few minutes earlier, with a lovely shot: The President apologetically leaves a Cabinet meeting in order to take his carriage to Ford’s Theatre. As Lincoln ambles down the hall towards where the carriage awaits, Spielberg switches from shots of the President’s back receding in the distance to close-ups of the face of his free-born black valet. Lincoln’s manservant watches the President depart, and a series of emotions seem to flash across his face–certainly, gratitude for the efforts the President has made in securing the amendment’s passage (though, like most other Americans, he scarcely has a clue about what Lincoln actually did to grease the skids in Congress); maybe, hope for the future; and, perhaps, concern for the President’s well-being, because the valet has every reason to understand how much pressure, political and marital, Lincoln has been under.

Just as the film was starting, I had leaned over to my companion, glowered in the general direction of the screen, and muttered, “Do you realize that, for the next generation, what many Americans ‘know’ about Abraham Lincoln will probably come from this movie?” As we left the multiplex, I repeated that remark, then added, “And, that’s probably not a bad thing.” While Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” could have been improved in a few places, his interpretation of Lincoln, appropriately to the season in which it was released, gives us much for which to be thankful.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is a master political manipulater on behalf of what he believes is a moral question in service to the “common good,” a leader searching for a way to arrive at a satisfactory compromise of a very controversial issue, while all around him, smaller men are clinging to ideological positions that play well with their supporters but ignore the “elephant in the room,” in this case, the abolition of slavery. And if that interpretation has any modern resonance, why, then, color me not at all surprised.

But don’t take my word for it; please find time to see this film for yourself. I also suggest that, either before or after you see it, you consider views on Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by others who are perhaps better qualified than I to offer guidance on “Lincoln’s” historical accuracy and relevance to modern American political culture:

A varied collection of news items and opinion pieces related to the film can be found at the always interesting History News Network (HNN) website:

From opposite ends of the op-ed political spectrum, two of my favorite columnists have had their say on “Lincoln”:

David Brooks, in “Why We Love Politics,” published in the New York Times:

(Note: An interesting response to Brooks’ column by historian Eric Foner, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, offers a much broader context than the Spielberg film on the topic, is attached to the Brooks op-ed and also included among the HNN pieces cited above.)

And Leonard Pitts, Jr., of the Miami Herald,who puts the film in the context of Lincoln’s proclamation establishing the fourth Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving:

Two other takes on the film, by columnist Ross Douthat and historian Philip Zelikow, both from the New York Times, are certainly worth considering:

Finally, a philosopher at Notre Dame tackles the almost existential question of the kinds of supplementary information the viewer of “Lincoln” needs in order to arrive at a sound historical understanding of Lincoln the man and the issue of Emancipation for which he fought:

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
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5 Responses to Getting Right With Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

  1. Glen Browder says:

    Excellent discussion, George. I too consider this one of the best movies/docudramas I have seen–I guess because it captures politics as I have observed it as an academician and practiced it as a politician. The movie covered exactly how important issues are passed, with the ingredients of policy, pork, personal payoffs, etc. The only thing missing, in my opinion, is the fact that, among the noble and ignoble tradeoffs usually involved in such politicking, there is usually a real give-and-take involving serious and positive issue deals among honorable people (I’ll help you pass what you think is good for the country if you’ll help me pass what I think is good for the country).

    I agree with you on the opening scene (with the four soldiers); it was overdone and the movie would have been better without that artificiality.

    I also want to comment on your observation that this film depiction may be the only thing that many people will “know” about Lincoln and that chapter in American history. I noted that our movie audience in Alabama was comprised almost exclusively of older people; and I figure they do understand the subject of the film. I suspect people who don’t already know about the subject will not go to the movie. A small point, but a point you and I might discuss further when we get a chance to visit.

    Thanks for your review.

    Glen Browder

    • Glen,
      Thanks for the comments on my foray into film criticism. The theatre in which we saw “Lincoln” had a much more “diverse” audience than yours, apparently, but I certainly take you point. I’m guessing that a lot more younger folks saw “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” than are going to see Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in the theatre. But I also was thinking about how the film (or parts of it) will be used in numerous high school/college American History classes and will also of course be available on the various cable movie channels within the next year or so. Think about how “Saving Private Ryan” has shaped–and will continue to shape what we know–or think we know–about D-Day.

  2. admiral17 says:

    Great piece. I haven’t seen the film, but plan to in the next couple of weeks. Keep up the good work.

  3. I’ve nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award, if you’d like to participate, have a look!

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