Lincoln. . . Political Theater on the Big Screen

Of our forty-four presidents, Abraham Lincoln is among the most beloved and respected. A lot has been said about Mr. Lincoln; one biographer suggests he is the most written about person in history after Jesus and William Shakespeare. The latest story to be told is in the highly anticipated film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his play, Angels in America, wrote the screenplay.

Slice of Life

The formula of most bio-pics is a life portrayed as an epic tale. It often follows a public figure from his or her formative years, through a rise to acclaim, and ending at death. This film, instead, focuses on a narrow period in Lincoln’s presidency – his struggle with the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. While this time period also happened to coincide with the last four months of Lincoln’s life, the film does not directly include his assassination.

Lincoln also offers viewers a glimpse into the personal life of our 16th president. Three years after the death of their middle son Willie, Lincoln (played by Daniel Day Lewis), wife Mary (Sally Field), and youngest son, Tad, are still very much affected by the loss. Lincoln’s relationship with his wife was a complex one (historians believe she may have suffered from bipolar disorder), as was his relationship with his oldest son who deeply resented his parents’ attempts to block his desperate desire to fight in the Civil War.

Historically Accurate?

The problem with any film depicting real events is that it is impossible to paint a complete picture of a life or even a complex situation in less than three hours. As to personal details, director Steven Spielberg goes to great length to get all of the set pieces and props accurate to the time, including the use of Lincoln’s actual pocket watch. Day-Lewis is earning critical acclaim for his ability to capture the former president’s voice and mannerisms, managing to express wisdom and strength as well as an inner reflectiveness and physical exhaustion. Kushner, in writing dialogue, went to great lengths to only include words and phrases appropriate to the time.

As for the portrayal of the political process and Lincoln’s role in ending the Civil War, opinion of the film’s reviewers is split. On one side, many are praising Spielberg for capturing the politics of compromise and getting things done in Washington. There was plenty of political maneuvering, including bribery and a struggle to overcome extreme racism. Some are calling the film a “well-crafted civics lesson”, illustrating in great detail the process of negotiation and the deal-making we hear so much about but rarely see. On the other hand, some reviewers think the narrow time period of the film shows an incomplete picture of history. For example, some point out that emancipation of the slaves was a drawn-out and complicated process by a committed group of abolitionists, and not the work of one man. Spielberg also deliberately changed many of the names of those who voted against the amendment, out of respect for their families.

Despite differences of opinion, most reviewers agree that Lincoln succeeds in celebrating the great president’s triumph, as well as his flaws. It also shows that the legislative process can be noble and yet an imperfect and complicated pursuit.

Dig Deeper Take a look at some other movies about our American Presidents – W., John Adams, Nixon, JFK– or films about the political events or processes such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Thirteen Days, and Frost/Nixon. What did you learn about presidential history that you didn’t know before? Look up what reviewers or historians had to say about the accuracy of what was portrayed.