Lincoln: Spielberg’s Urgent Civics Lesson

Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance as a President who could charm and cajole to pass crucial legislation

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David James / DreamWorks / 20th Century Fox / AP

To his congressional adversaries, he is a tyrant — “King Abrahamus Lincolnus” — and to his allies, a weakling: “the capitulating compromiser.” Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, tells him, “I lead. You should try it some time.” It is the winter of 1864–65, but the barbs directed at Abraham Lincoln have the prickly familiarity of the insults that have been directed at Barack Obama over the past few years: that he was a strange, aloof man convinced of his superiority to the congressional rabble who favored elevated oratory over the mucky trench work needed to pass legislation.

The analogy of the 16th and 44th U.S. Presidents provides a fascinating undercurrent to Lincoln, the sturdy, sometimes starchy drama directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. Rather than add to the dozens of movie biographies of the Great Emancipator, Kushner dipped into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln to focus on the President’s drive for the House ratification of the 13th Amendment. Boasting an urgent density of detail and cunning performances by Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role and Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens, Lincoln is a civics lesson that frequently brings life to the nation’s central political and moral debate. Just as important, it joins Argo as a movie that dares to remind American moviegoers that its government can achieve great victories against appalling odds.

(MORE: Tony Kushner on Lincoln Screenplay, Séances, Greatest Political Speech )

In 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation under his war powers as Commander in Chief. With the Civil War drawing to a close, he needed a constitutional amendment to certify the abolition of slavery in all states, Union as well as Confederate. To Lincoln, and to the Senate that passed it, the amendment would prove the truth of Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal.” (Not all women, mind you: it would be six amendments and 55 years later before U.S. women got the vote.) But the House was divided between abolitionist Republicans and Confederate-leaning Democrats, called Copperheads, who invoked Scripture to oppose the law. As New York Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) thunders, “Congress must not declare equal those whom God has created unequal.”

Like Obama, who in 2009 deferred action on jobs legislation to spend nearly a year pushing his health care bill, Lincoln is accused of delaying the war’s end until the House has passed the 13th Amendment. But unlike Obama, Lincoln eagerly cuts deals with wavering Congressmen, employing cajolery, patronage and veiled threats to secure the legislation. Ignoring the ethical clucking of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln shows that, to be a great statesman, it doesn’t hurt to be a savvy politician.

(QUIZ: Take the ‘Four Score’ Quiz and Get TIME’s Lincoln Issue Free)

As the director of this teeming fresco of idealism and compromise, Spielberg is less the suave manager of emotions than the expert wrangler of crowds — a talent he displayed in his 1997 Amistad, another history lesson about black slaves and the Congress. In Lincoln he crams perhaps a hundred people into the frame during the House fracas. Though the movie spends little time on the battlefield, the debate scenes are like war vignettes, but with words for swords. Taking a visual cue from Ken Burns’ documentary epic The Civil War, which covered much the same ground, Spielberg employs tracking shots that move across the Congressmen, then creep in for closeups. The difference is that, here, the photos move and engage in rhetoric that may be fierce eloquence or the standard flatulence of filibustering hacks. (Another touchstone to today’s electors.)

Abraham Lincoln is the movies’ favorite President, with more than 300 portrayals in a century of Hollywood hagiography, from Ralph Ince in the 1911 The Battle Hymn of the Republic to Benjamin Walker in this summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the decade of the 1910s, Ince played Lincoln eight times, John Ford’s actor brother Francis in another eight films and Benjamin Chapin 14 times. In the 1920s and ’30s, character actor Frank McGlynn Sr. made a career of Lincoln impersonation with more than a dozen films, including John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman and, with Shirley Temple, The Littlest Rebel. Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook (who has a small role in Lincoln as presidential adviser Preston Blair) have all lent their faces and voices to extend the legend of the Great Emancipator.

(VIDEO: Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis Talk to TIME About Making Lincoln)

The trick is to lend both plausibility and surprise to the portrayal, and Day-Lewis, in just his fifth film role in the 15 years since The Boxer, meets the challenge smartly. Day-Lewis has always suggested an actor in isolation, not just because of his fondness for remaining in character throughout the filming process but also because he seems so inner-directed, debating not the other actors but himself. That technique suits Lincoln, a remote and towering figure who wrestles in public with his own angels and demons — and who speaks, with apparent historical accuracy, in a thin, reedy voice that makes him sound like Walter Brennan, with teeth.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln indulges the restlessness of his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), chafing to join the war, and the dire presentiments of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, bold and acute). “You alone,” he tells Mary, “may lighten this burden or render it intolerable.” But the family’s anguish, however illuminating, is not the President’s or the movie’s chief concern. Lincoln sees any burden as tolerable to achieve his aims. The man has an amendment to pass and, only then, a war to win.

He will win both with wit as well as grit, drawing on his country boy–lawyer anecdotes that leaven the movie’s weighty tone even as they send his exasperated listeners’ eyebrows through their hairlines. “I could write shorter sermons,” Abe acknowledges, “but once I start, I get too lazy to stop.” At nearly 2½ hours, this high-IQ sermon is long but never lazy. Renouncing his tendency to make every movie take emotional flight, Spielberg sticks to the story as Kushner has artfully compressed it. Lincoln is brain food and, at another pivotal moment in American political history, an instructive feast.

MORE: What Would Lincoln Do?

MORE: How Daniel Day-Lewis Became Lincoln

113 comments
mrbomb13
mrbomb13

After all of the errors found in "Lincoln," I would not show this movie to my American History students.

This movie is anything but a "civics lesson."

RanjitPatel
RanjitPatel

Better review of this movie on amren.com

Pure propaganda, full of historical errors, Spielberg insults the men who fought in the Civil War.

JeffJavid
JeffJavid

"Colonization" was always to be voluntary. Lincoln's desire to afford blacks an outlet from a racist society applies even to the "new" claims that he pursued colonization after the Emancipation Proclamation. And, historians still debate those claims. However, as stated in an earlier post, President Lincoln made moves toward including African-Americans in the American polity.  That he would still seek to provide those who wished to leave America that choice  is not inconsistent with that desire. In the 1850's, he stated that he did not feel that it "bettered their condition" to keep blacks in America as "underlings." In a private letter, he wrote that he "abhorred the oppression of Negroes"; and he was not just referring to slavery. Later, as President, Lincoln said the treatment of blacks did not "accord with justice."

Lawyer Lincoln also defended slaves--one case establishing the precedence of freedom for any slave brought to Illinois soil. 

As one historian has written, "the Lincoln of history simply would not exist" had he advocated, or left unanswered charges of, full equality while seeking office as an Illinois politician. And, as President, Lincoln could not but steer a cautious, but progressive, course.

Keating_one
Keating_one

I doubt very much that Lincoln believed all men were created equal, considering that he wanted to send blacks back to Africa or South America after the war - a well known fact known to even high school students.  Just Google Lincoln relocation of blacks.  So I wouldn't portrait as a saint.  Even in Illinois there was nothing in his record to suggest he believed blacks were equal, in fact there were cases he tried defending whites over their escaped slaves.

Maybe Spielberg should keep his leftist conscious t himself and concentrate on movies he knows how to make like Jurassic Park or ET.  Because distorting history doesn't help anyone.

http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/civil-war/2011/feb/8/lincolns-plan-colonize-blacks-caribbean-discovered/

http://www.mrlincolnandfreedom.org/inside.asp?ID=34&subjectID=3

digiorgio23
digiorgio23

The only thing 'high-iq' and 'brain food' about this movie is maybe the linguistic accuracy and the figurative language, which is fairly minimal.  If you're well-informed about the history, the presidency, civics and the enigmatic qualities of the man, then it's not anymore complex than most hollywood narratives.  

Washtash
Washtash

I have a hard time even watching this movie since Steven Spielberg is a known political advocate for the Democratic party.  I am sure it will be politically biased just like all of Hollywood and the Media.

Great Words from an American President“You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”- Abraham Lincoln- First Republican President

JeffJavid
JeffJavid

"Emphatically the Black Man's President"

In Chicago, in July 1858, Abraham Lincoln pleaded with his audience, "let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man; this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position; discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal...I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal."  

A study of Lincoln's life reveals him to have never easily fit the mores and customs of his times. Thus, the growth depicted between a pre-presidential and presidential Lincoln is unnecessary. Harry Jaffa's "Crisis of the House Divided", on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates; Richard Striner's "Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle Against Slavery"; Lawanda Cox's "Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership"; James Oakes' "The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics"; Allen Guelzo's "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America"; and Michael Burlingame's "Abraham Lincoln: A Life"; all show Lincoln, at each stage of his life and career, to be a personally committed man with a progressive political career.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure and applied it only to areas still in rebellion against the national authority, because such was the only way to present it as constitutional. The loyal slave-holding Border states also were crucial to the Union cause and couldn't be alienated. As Union forces advanced and conquered the rebellious areas more and more African-Americans became free. Nonetheless, Lincoln was so concerned that the Proclamation would be ruled unconstitutional that he insisted the 13th Amendment be a part of the 1864 Republican Platform; made sure an unprecedented enforcement clause was added; used all his powers of persuasion and patronage to get it through Congress; and signed the Amendment though his signature was not needed. Frederick Douglass was "impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race" after meeting with Lincoln three times in the White House, and in 1865 called him "emphatically the black man's president."

Colonization was to be voluntary; Lincoln felt white prejudice so intractable that he urged black leaders to consider it. Colonization was abandoned as ventures failed, and African-Americans rejected it. Lincoln said blacks and whites would just have to "live out of the old relation and  come out better prepared for the new." As president, Lincoln approved of bills abolishing segregation on omnibuses in D.C.; for allowing black witnesses in federal courts; for equalizing penalties for the same crime; for equal pay for black soldiers. He welcomed, for the first time, an ambassador from Haiti; African-Americans picnicked on the White House grounds. He supported the activities of the Freedmen's Bureau. When he visited occupied Richmond, he took off his hat and returned the bow of an elderly black man--an act of equality noted by sullen white onlookers and the press alike. In what was his last public address, Lincoln called for public schooling for blacks, and for the vote for black soldiers and the well educated. John Wilkes Booth, in the crowd, seethed "that means n-- citizenship", and vowed that the speech would be Lincoln's last.

Runaway slaves, black and white abolitionists, all played a crucial role in slavery's demise. However, President Lincoln was key to the abolition of slavery. A friend of black freedom, Lincoln worked assiduously for "a new birth of freedom" in the United States where all had the opportunity to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

vrcplou
vrcplou

Dang, can't even read a movie review anymore without it devolving into a political fight.

SarahRodrigues
SarahRodrigues

Please someone tell me where Jesus believes in redistribution of wealth? Help me out here. Anyone under the age of 35 gets a pass for being a libtard, I was one before I grew up..started paying taxes..realized that we have a responsibility to take care of the NEEDY, not the worthless. Did Jesus teach that gays should get hitched and that other people should pay for promiscuity?    Im a recovering libtard, I know how you folks think. Your heros are people that are "radical" for the sake of the term, with no rationality or reason. Open up the left sid of your brains for a change. 

SarahRodrigues
SarahRodrigues

No wonder people don't trust Hollywood and the media. How can ANYONE compare Obama to Lincoln?   Lincoln's views of humanity and the rights of all humans came from the Bible. He had no public education and his faith was a guiding light in decisionmaking and times of trouble. Our libtard president wouldn't know moral integrity if it hit in on the head.  Boo.

southwick.stella
southwick.stella

Here is the point, I clicked on this article to read about a movie, about Abraham Lincoln, NOT to read this writers opinion about Obama.

lzc5wh
lzc5wh

Are there vampires in this one?

4boys63
4boys63

Really?  Obama to Lincoln?  Journalism at its worst.

I knew Abraham Lincoln, I worked with Abraham Lincoln, and you sir (Obama) are no Abraham Lincoln!

southwick.stella
southwick.stella

Really, I stopped reading after the first paragraph, the writer went of of his way to pointlessly insert Obama into a story about a total different man, in a total different time. There is no comparison. Stop shoving your views down my throat. I clicked on this to Read about the movie Lincoln, not to read about Obama, who is nothing like Lincoln

Mermaid7
Mermaid7

To try to draw any comparison to a great President (Lincoln) to a failed one (Obama) is rather insulting.  I will watch Lincoln because of those involved in making the film and staying true to history, but I wouldn't watch 5 minutes of anything Obama had to say about anything.  Big difference

AndrewMatthews
AndrewMatthews

One important thing that people do not know about Lincoln, because history (white history) likes to glorify itself, is that Lincoln was willing to compromise with the South over it's ownership of slaves to avoid the Civil War.  Read books people and know history.  You would think that U.S. citizens would get tired of trying to escape their real history and just own up to both the good and the bad.

DavidDyer
DavidDyer

Barack Obama is no Abraham Lincoln.  Period.

Guinnessmonkey
Guinnessmonkey

@RanjitPatelThanks for linking me to a horrifically racist website.  Thanks for the warning.  The fact that a good deal of the comments section is taken up by attacking "race mixing" says it all, really.

Guinnessmonkey
Guinnessmonkey

@Keating_one Lincoln gave up on his colonization talk after he grew to understand that this wasn't what black Americans wanted.  Like many people from rural areas in the North, he didn't know many blacks at first.  The more he learned, the less racist (by today's standards) he became.  There's a reason guys like Frederick Douglas spoke so highly of Lincoln by the time he died.

CastleRay
CastleRay

Actually, the movie is about the Republicans fighting the Democrats. Lincoln was a Republican. So Spielberg paints the Democrats in a negative light. You did know that, didn't you?

jdjoyner3
jdjoyner3

@SarahRodrigues In the eyes of the Lord, no one is worthless. Not even the worst sinner. Not only have you harshly judged your brothers and sisters, but you have forgotten the love you are supposed to show your neighbor. With every hate filled comment, you draw further away from Christ. Remember to judge not, lest you yourself be judged.

 And I also pay taxes. 

jlatillman
jlatillman

@SarahRodrigues Mark, Chapter 10, beginning at the 17th verse:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

deltawaves77
deltawaves77

"It is easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to get to heaven" - Jesus

"Give to everyone who begs of you" - Jesus

"Love they neighbor as thyself" - Jesus

Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.  Not once. 

And I pay taxes too.

CastleRay
CastleRay

Well the similarity is that only 25% of the country liked Lincoln. Fortunately for him, 50% seceded from the union, giving him the upper hand to pass the legislations he wanted.. He was blamed for the deaths of many rebel and union soldiers. He wasn't popular.  According to historian Mark Noll "Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christianbelief." Even though he quoted from the bible,  Lincoln's belief has been argued for years even. Obama calls himself a Christian, but critics would rather call him a muslim. So what Obama and Lincoln have in common is that a lot of people did not like them at the time they lived. 

deltawaves77
deltawaves77

Funny.  I'm a "libtard" and my belief in universal health care comes from the Bible.  Don't pretend you understand the legacy of Lincoln just because you share his party.  Before he was a Republican, Lincoln was a member of the Whig party, which espoused great internal improvements including public education, read: big government in today's speak.  Lincoln had no formal education but he read obsessively, educated himself on philosophy, and was guided in his public life by reason.  Obama is compared to Lincoln because he had little poltical experience before becoming President, was known for elevated oratory, and was despised by his enemies.  If you spent half as much time educating yourself as you did wallowing in your own moral superiority you would know enough to make a competent argument for your beliefs.  All the best.

dzprez01
dzprez01

you are an idiot. he didnt say he was as good as lincoln. the only comparison was that obamas supporters (people like me) think he is too much of a compromiser, and people that oppose him are conspiratory and accuse him of wielding too much power (which is just laughable)

3vilmonkey
3vilmonkey

@southwick.stella Ah.. another sore-loser from the GOP party of racist maniacs.  You're part of a dying breed... evolve or perish.

JasonPeak
JasonPeak

@southwick.stella 

President from Illinois, presiding over an ideologically divided nation, opposed by people citing the bible rather than the law...nah, no comparisons to be drawn at all.

3vilmonkey
3vilmonkey

@Mermaid7 Ah... so Obama is a "failed" president, eh?  How so?  By saving the economy from the absolute collapsing disaster he inherited from Bush?  By getting us out of Iraq (the $3trillion war that Bush started based on lies)?  Healthcare reform?  Getting Bin Laden?  Education reform?  BY WINNING A SECOND TERM??  

Keep whining and crying.. you're just another delusional neo-con sore-loser.  Pathetic.

ATLWmn
ATLWmn

@Mermaid7 That's a shame, you should always be informed.  How else will you know what to hate about the man?  Biased news sources don't tell the whole story.  You should always stay abreast of what your president is saying, even if you don't like what he says.

mej120
mej120

that was before the war started, lincoln's opinion of African Americans changed drastically during the war. And that is not white history brother. Where  and when Lincoln grew up he did not even come in comtact with that many black people before becoming an adult. His contention was always that the country could not survivr as 1/2 free and 1/2 slaves, it would have to be all of one or the other nad knew that only a war would provide that answer 

prior

The_Myth
The_Myth

@AndrewMatthews One thing people should know about Che...He raped, murdered, and killed anything that got in his way. Before you go pointing the finger at anyone, take a closer look at yourself.

sjenner
sjenner

@AndrewMatthews, your point is true, yet wrong. Lincoln wrestled the question of slavery to the ground and ultimately abolished it. The process is messy, as is true of all complex decisions with such serious ramifications. Our heroes may ponder longer on issues than we, their beneficiaries, may wish given the benefits of hindsight and the long view of history. Let's also be honest: the decision to go to war over union was not a small thing. More Americans died in that conflict than any other, and more than any other war, at about 625,000 (that's equal to or more than WWI, WWII, Kora, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined). For you to so blithely skip over the details, and ignore the result, is unfair, to say the least.

ATLWmn
ATLWmn

@AndrewMatthews That's absolutely true.  And you're right, every history has the good and the bad, as does every man (and his presidency).  Lincoln absolutely placed the importance of slavery below the importance of a united country, which enabled the abomination to continue. But let's not pretend they don't teach that, because they do.  People unfortunately hear what they want to hear and glaze over the bad stuff.  

LAKid
LAKid

Why is it that any discussion on politics always ends up including religion?  Jefferson would be spinning in his grave.

JonnyV
JonnyV

@jlatillman @SarahRodrigues If that's an argument for redistribution then you really need help with your logic.  A voluntary contribution is vastly different from legalized theft.  That would be like saying that because I am willing to buy Christmas gifts for my friends and family I am now legally obligated to buy Christmas gifts for your friends and family.  This is not charity it is theft!  I comply with the law because it is my obligation, that does not make the law ethical and it does not make communism equivalent to charity.

matthew.collings
matthew.collings

@deltawaves77 

In that first quote Jesus was referring not to money but attachment tomaterialism which blinded a persons soul with Maya and disillusion. Iwould say unless youre an ascetic or a mystic everyone on this forum isnot getting through the eye of that needle. The chat on this forum is initself just arguing degrees of materialism lesser and higher throughthe prism of man made politics. Jesus would think were all beingridiculous - and we all are.

mej120
mej120

saved the economy????really,? and how does outting us anothe 4-6 trillion in debt with 49% of the population receiving government assistance  save the economy??

HenryTang
HenryTang

@sjenner @AndrewMatthews You hit it on the head, sjenner.  Life is complicated, and it was not as easy as waving a wand and saying slaves are free.  there is an actual process that everything must go through.  Yes, Abe Lincoln initially did not believe the quick way to the end of slavery was worth the price of war.  But once war came, Lincoln was the one who cut to the chase and kept the focus on what the real cause of war was--slavery--not, as the Southerners insisted, states' rights.  it is easy for Andrew to say that in hindsight and when the decisions don't mean his own friends and family die.  

deltawaves77
deltawaves77

Did Jeus heal the sick, or ask for an insurance card first?

LAKid
LAKid

@RandallAinsworth 

Love your response.  And don't forget, we still have a thriving automobile industry, thanks to the bailout Mittens said was his idea, after he said let the industry declare bankruptcy.