The issue of slavery has always clouded the objective historical analysis of Abraham Lincoln, his life, and his political career. Lincoln’s opposition to slavery at the end of the Civil War seems to excuse all of his earlier actions that may be called into question. It’s also often said that history is written by the victors. Such is the case with Lincoln and the Civil War. However, there are many very smart historians taking the other side who have shown the dark side of Lincoln, the North (including its own rampant racism), the abolitionists, and the negative consequences of Lincoln’s expansion of the federal government.
Steven Spielberg’s film LINCOLN clearly takes the politically correct, Northern view of Lincoln and wraps it up in the shroud of the moral fight against slavery. Thus, it decides mostly to focus on Lincoln’s fight in January 1865 to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States and its territories. Though the portrayal of this fight has its nuances, it doesn’t include the extensive evidence suggesting that Lincoln could be an ambitious, secretive tyrant. It also excludes such facts that, just before the Civil War began, President Lincoln had actually expressed support for a Thirteenth Amendment to perpetuate slavery, which had just been passed under his predecessor to encourage Southern states to stay in the Union. Sadly, LINCOLN also contains a surprising amount of anachronistic foul language and a surprising lack of uplifting religious references.
The movie opens with a scene of black Union soldier battling white Confederate soldiers to the death in the rain, at the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry in April 1864. Cut to a corny, rather politically correct scene where two white Union soldiers and two black soldiers quote the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln near the battlefield. One of the black soldiers complains about unequal pay to Lincoln. At the end of the scene, he’s the one who actually remembers the last line to the Gettysburg Address. Pointedly, the two white soldiers forget it.
After winning re-election the following November, Lincoln decides he wants to resubmit the amendment to free the slaves throughout the country. The amendment had passed the Senate but was defeated in the House. After his 1864 victory at the polls, however, Lincoln thinks he can sway the now lame-duck House Democrats who had voted against the amendment. He dangles some carrots in front of these Democrats – some patronage jobs in the federal government.
Most of the movie’s plot involves the political wrangling over gaining the votes to pass the amendment. Now that victory in the war is near, Lincoln feels slavery will never be abolished unless they pass the amendment right away. Interspersed with this political fight are emotional scenes of Lincoln’s relationship with his wife, Mary, and his two remaining sons, young Todd and adult son Robert. The serious drama is lightened with examples of Lincoln’s fabled wit and storytelling abilities.
Except for a couple awkward scenes that don’t play well, like the opening corny scene about the Gettysburg Address, LINCOLN is an engrossing, captivating work. It’s full of superb performances, including Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, as well as exquisite period detail. It’s certain to grab some major nominations during the upcoming awards season.
On the positive side, the movie does have some historical nuances. For instance, one scene mentions Lincoln’s suspension of a couple civil rights during the war, including habeus corpus and freedom of the press. One mention, however, is certainly not enough. Lincoln didn’t suspend such civil rights for Southern sympathizers and rebels but also for political opponents and other dissenters. LINCOLN also shows a contentious relationship between Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, the secular leader of the most radical abolitionist faction in the House of Representatives. In the end, however, there’s a politically correct scene of the rabble-rousing Stevens having a quiet moment in bed with the black woman who served as his housekeeper for many years. That relationship has long been rumored, and Stevens never outright denied it, but it’s also never been confirmed.
LINCOLN contains a few religious references. The strongest is a shot of black people raising their eyes to God when the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery is passed. There are a few verbal references to God. Some put belief in God in a relatively positive light (e.g., one God bless you is said and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which includes references to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, is sung). Some, however, put faith in God in a negative light. The most negative references are one or two comments by opponents of the Thirteenth Amendment that God created blacks to be inferior to whites, thus implying that freeing black slaves would be a bad idea violating God’s natural order.
Ultimately, LINCOLN is a salute to Lincoln’s efforts to outlaw slavery and pass the Thirteenth Amendment. This turns the movie from being an examination of Lincoln to being a strong moral plea against slavery, racism and prejudice. As such, it glosses over the changes in Lincoln’s opinions on the slavery issue as the Civil War progressed. It also mostly ignores other historical details that might tarnish Lincoln’s reputation. Finally, LINCOLN suggests that the ends (outlawing slavery) justified the means (political bribery and deception to the point of nearly lying, or, at the very least, obfuscating the truth). Sadly, the movie also contains about 40 obscenities and profanities, including four “f” words and more than 10 GDs.
All in all, despite its good intentions and meticulous depiction of the past, LINCOLN warrants strong caution. Moviegoers always should be very cautious about getting their history from movies. Movies are seldom, if ever, a good substitute for serious study of the actual historical record.
Finally, if you asked our reviewer’s opinion, he would say that he much preferred Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST to his LINCOLN. It’s more heartfelt and riveting.
Note: For a radically different view of Lincoln, the abolitionists, and the Civil War, you might want to read THE SOUTH WAS RIGHT by James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy. For a very scholarly, conservative examination of the limited meaning of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, see Chapter 8 of M.E. Bradford’s ORIGINAL INTENTIONS. For the Northern view of Lincoln and the Civil War, the works of historian James M. McPherson (BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM) are a great place to start.
(BBB, C, PCPC, RHRH, LLL, VV, S, A, D, MM) Very strong moral worldview against slavery but with only some light, infrequently uplifting references to God, strong anachronistic foul language, and some strong politically correct revisionist history that obliterates many of the nuances about the history of President Lincoln and the War for Southern Independence, aka the Civil War, aka The War of Northern Agression; 24 obscenities (including four “f” words), 13 or 14 strong profanities (all but two are GDs), and three light profanities; strong war violence in one scene with soldiers fighting and dying in the rain almost completely hand to hand with swords and some guns, scene showing amputated limbs being dumped outside of a military hospital and buried, and man runs from a gun-toting human varmint; no sex scenes but unmarried interracial couple lies in bed, thus implying that they are living together without being married; no nudity; alcohol use; some smoking; and, bribery, an attitude of the ends (outlawing slavery) justifying the means, political obfuscation to win political battles, and racism but rebuked.
Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN focuses on President Lincoln’s efforts in January 1865 to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States and its territories. Now that victory in the Civil War is near, Lincoln feels slavery will never be abolished unless they pass the amendment right away. Interspersed with this political fight are emotional scenes of Lincoln’s relationship with his wife, Mary, and his two remaining sons, young Todd and adult son Robert. The serious drama is lightened with examples of Lincoln’s fabled storytelling wit.
Except for a couple awkward scenes that don’t play well, LINCOLN is an engrossing, captivating work. It’s full of superb performances and exquisite period detail. The movie is primarily a strong moral plea against slavery, racism, and prejudice. However, it ignores some historical details that might tarnish Lincoln’s reputation. Also, there’s much strong foul language, to the point of being excessive. Finally, the movie suggests that the ends justifies the means. Therefore, MOVIEGUIDE® advises strong caution for LINCOLN. Movies are seldom, if ever, a good substitute for serious study of the actual historical record.