“Lincoln” is not a war movie, but it is a Civil War movie. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and was under development for about ten years. Based on the Doris Kearns Godwin book Team of Rivals, which was about Lincoln and his cabinet, Spielberg was actually working on the movie before the book came out. The screenplay was by Tony Kirshner who spent years researching the topic. He took some artistic license as is to be expected, but his heart was in the right place. Spielberg’s first choice for Lincoln was Daniel Day-Lewis but he declined the role. Liam Neeson was tabbed, but after the movie was slow getting off the ground, he dropped out claiming he was now too old. Day-Lewis then reconsidered. He was rewarded with the Best Actor Academy Award. The film also won for Production Design. It was nominated for ten other awards including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Sally Field), and Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones). “Lincoln” was a box office success and was critically acclaimed. As a post script, one impact of the film was the final unanimous ratification of the 13th Amendment. It seems that when Mississippi belatedly ratified it in 1995, the paperwork was not filed properly. Prodding from two academicians caused the Mississippi Secretary of State to rectify the error in 2013.
The movie covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life. It concentrates on his quest to pass the 13th Amendment. Although more famous for his Emancipation Proclamation, that Presidential edict did not actually end slavery. It declared that the slaves in the Confederate-occupied South were free. The 13th Amendment officially ended slavery, but it was not an easy sell to Congress. Lincoln had to use all of his considerable political skills to get the amendment through the House of Representatives. The film chronicles the machinations that led to the climactic vote. Lincoln is a realpolitician who allows Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) to employ a trio of political operatives led by the earthy Bilbo (James Spader). The trio prove that the “spoils system” was still alive and well in 1865. Lincoln also allies with Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who believes that blacks deserve equality along with freedom. Not all his colleagues in the House agree with his enlightened philosophy, as the spirited debates in the chamber depict. There is plenty of 19th Century trash-talking. In the midst of all this political maneuvering, there is a back-stairs at the White House arc that portrays the dynamics of the Lincoln family. The death of their son Tad weighs on Abe and Mary. The aged look of Lincoln can be attributed to prosecuting the worst war in American History and being married to Mary.
“Lincoln” finished #13 in box office in 2012, which was very good for a movie of its type. It was the only movie in the top twenty that was non-fiction. Three of the thirteen were superhero movies, two were teenage trilogy movies, and four were animated children’s movies. “Lincoln” was the most popular adult drama and its success proves that you can make money with a movie that has a lot of talking in it. Although I can imagine some audience members might have squirmed like Lincoln’s cabinet when he launched into one of his homespun stories. The movie is dialogue driven and manages to be set in the Civil War and yet avoid the temptation to throw in explosions. Kirshner’s script is entertaining in its blend of Lincoln’s brilliant wordsmanship and the political argot of the time. Did you know they used the f-word back then? They also used the term “fatuous nincompoop”. That bon mot was uttered in one of the lively scenes in the House. Jones gets the best lines as Stevens, but the rest of his distinguished colleagues make you wish C-SPAN had a Civil War archive. Apparently, back then, they did not use the phrase “my dear friend” before they reamed them.
The movie is almost flawless in its execution. It is good Spielberg. Although the start had me concerned with its lame Spielbergian recital of the “Gettysburg Address” by a white and then black soldier. After that schmaltzy opening, the movie settles down to straightforward narrative of the events surrounding the passage of the amendment. The narrative is extremely well-acted by a top-notch cast. Day-Lewis richly deserved his Oscar and even shambles like Lincoln. Fields is great (she gained twenty pounds for the role) and gets a scene where she sarcastically tears Stevens a new one. (Sadly, this did not happen.) Mary’s insanity is only alluded to. Jones and Strathairn are strong and there are plenty of familiar character actors to flesh out the film. The cinematography is showy with the appropriately dark interiors masterly lit. There is some bravura camerawork, like a domestic scene where Lincoln can be seen in the foreground and in the background in a mirror. Nicely done. The sets are authentic.
As far as historical accuracy, I found varying opinions on this issue. It depended on how nitpicky the historian wanted to be. But, surprisingly, I also found that there is some disagreement about some of the key facts in the story. For instance, one of the most provocative plot developments is Stevens shacking up with his black housekeeper. This seemingly Hollywood invention is based on a well-known rumor/calumny of the time. Some historians are convinced it was true. I buy it. Here is a list of some of the major “are you kidding me?” moments.
1. Lincoln did have a recurring dream about being the captain of a ship. The movie implies it was an analogy of the passage of the amendment, but most historians logically feel he was subconsciously associating the ship with the war effort.
2. Lincoln did tell stories and the ones included in the movie, like the Ethan Allen story, were among his repertoire.
3. By the time of the movie, Lincoln had culled his cabinet of naysayers, so the movie overplays their opposition.
4. Seward did employ some shady dealers, but we don’t know whether they actually bribed Congressman. Lincoln certainly did not meet with them.
5. Congressmen would not have addressed each other directly in debates, but hurrah (huzzah?) for Hollywood on this one. Also, the vote would have been by paper ballot. Ditto.
6. The Robert Lincoln arc is accurate. He did insist on enlisting and Abe did get Grant to put him on his staff. Abe would not have slapped him, even though their relationship was frosty.
7. The peace delegation arc was accurate, but they would not have been met by black soldiers.
8. There were blacks in the balcony for the final vote (one was Frederick Douglass’ son Charles), but they would not have entered en masse. Mary did not attend.
9. Tad was at a performance of “Aladdin” when his father’s shooting was announced.
Overall, I consider the movie to be commendably accurate. This, added to its excellent entertainment value, makes it an outstanding movie. It is a must-see for every American. Even if (especially if?) you are a Confederate statue defender.
GRADE = A