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5 Ways Steven Spielberg's Lincoln Is Not The Movie You Might Think It Is

By Dustin Rowles | Seriously Random Lists | November 28, 2012 | Comments ()


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Unless you spend a lot of time reading presidential biographies, what most of us know about Abraham Lincoln is largely limited to our history lessons in high school and college. We know about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we know that Lincoln never won an election until the presidency, we know about the Emancipation Proclamation, and we know that Lincoln was assassinated.

But that's hardly the whole story.

I've seen a lot of people say that they're not interested in seeing Lincoln because they already know what happens. In fact, an oft-repeated joke I've seen made about Lincoln is: "SPOILER ALERT: He dies in the end." But most of us only know the facts; we don't know the details, and it's the details that makes Lincoln not only one of the best movies of 2012, but one of the most enlightening, and not just because Daniel Day Lewis delivers the best acting performance since ... Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

Moreover, Lincoln is not about what you may think it is about. It's not about the Emancipation Proclamation, and it's not about his assassination. In fact, both of those events are minor bookends to the rest of the movie, and hardly the point of it. Lincoln is not a movie about Abraham Lincoln as much as it's a movie about the intricacies of Civil War politics. It makes human all those names we recall from our history textbooks.

Here are five things you may not know that Lincoln is actually about:

1. The Emancipation Proclamation Did Not End Slavery -- The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order that freed the slaves during wartime. There was no legal reason why, at the end of the Civil War, slave owners couldn't have simply reclaimed their rights of ownership, which is why Abraham Lincoln needed to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery once and for all.

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2. Lincoln Is Largely About the Political Maneuvering Behind the Passage of the 13th Amendment -- And it was fascinating. While the 13th Amendment had already passed in the Senate, it was not popular among many Americans, and even among representatives in Lincoln's own party. Even those who abhorred slavery were not keen on passing an amendment giving equal rights to African Americans. Lincoln had to apply a lot of pressure to members of his own party and pick off several outgoing Democrats in a lame-duck Congressional session, and the only reason it even got passed was because the South was not part of the United States, and therefore had no votes in Congress.

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3. Thaddeus Stevens Was One Awesome Bad Ass -- Just as instrumental as Lincoln in getting the 13th Amendment passed was Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Pennsylvania's senior House member who was considered a radical Republican because he believed African Americans were equal among the races. Stevens actually had to temper his stance in order to convince members of his own party and a few Democrats to vote for the Amendment. Tommy Lee Jones also delivers one monster of a supporting actor performance.

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4. Lincoln Had to Pull Off Some Sketchy Deals to Pass the Amendment -- There's an entire subplot -- featuring James Spader, John Hawkes, Walton Goggins, and Tim Blake Nelson -- where Lincoln had to bribe outgoing Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment with patronage jobs. He wasn't shy about it, either. Lincoln's position was essentially: Whatever it takes, even if it meant continuing an unpopular war with a massive body count and using a peace treaty as leverage to get the Amendment passed.

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5. Lincoln Had a Difficult Family Situation -- Much of this has been publicized since the release of the film, but I had no idea that Mary Todd Lincoln was a nutcase who Lincoln nearly had to put into an insane asylum after the death of one of their sons, and who had a very contentious relationship with her husband surrounding whether their other son, Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), would fight in the war. She was an hysterical woman, which made it all the more difficult for him to pass the Amendment, especially with his own wife pressuring him to end the war for the sake of their own son, even if it meant that th e13th Amendment would not pass.

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Lincoln is not the stuffy historical biopic many may think it is. Lincoln -- even knowing what we know about the story -- is eye-opening, gripping and completely engrossing film that will completely reshape your opinion of the the 16th President of the United States. We all know he was a great man, and probably the best President the country has ever had: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln shows us why that is true.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • alan

    Lincoln is a good movie--but this article and others like it are part of a PR juggernaut that, while not misrepresenting what happens in the film, misrepresents the effect. The acting is fine but is does not astonish. It shouldn't because the moment it does, it is false to the idea of verisimilitude. The story is interesting enough, but it is not riveting and and it is not terribly engaging. It takes a special interest to appreciate it (certainly, we should all have some interest here, but don't count on it). It is a Spielberg movie, but it looks like any movie shot by anyone. I don't think this is such a bad thing; still, one should not expect technique to spill out all over the place. It is somewhat entertaining, but It is not the movie you will want to see twice. Now, it is good enough and I think that is admirable enough. Most flicks produced by "Hollywood" are dehydrated, digital dreck. Lincoln is most certainly NOT that. Spielberg is the finest movie storyteller the world has ever seen. He does not have to enlarge the story here to engage those who seek a deeper understanding of his last several months in office. But for heavens sake--don't oversell this film. It is finding its audience perfectly well without the blunderbuss.

    FInally, there are other better made, more interesting, and more entertaining films in the marketplace right now. Get some perspective and see them. Don't miss AMOUR--I saw a sneak of it yesterday and it is hauntingly effective. It will get into your soul and shake you to the bone. Lincoln will stand as one of the better movies of 2012 but a quite average film in the Spielberg oevre (which, by the way means that it towers over 95% of everything produced by anyone, anywhere.

  • MIchael Murray

    I didn't like this movie and found it flatly boring. ( Do not see it after eating a big dinner with two glasses of wine.) It was created with a specific audience in mind, that audience being those who vote for the Academy Awards and value the prestige associated with winning one. Acting, you know, and acting in wigs. You're also to understand it's serious because it's boring, and it has the earnest, baby-boomer glisten to it, with white liberal virtue pushing the world bravely to the margins. There were as many bad performances as good ones, and there were simply too many people in the film, reminding me a of one of those cobbled together disaster films of the 70s, only using Ken Burns as a template. It's the sort of thing you feel you have to see, but the truth is that you don't.

  • Rosanna

    But...but where's the part about him hunting and killing the vampires? :(

  • This makes me want to see this movie even more!

  • logan

    We saw this last week and we both thought "What a great movie!". We went into it with no preconceived notions and were very pleasantly surprised. When you consider that we ALL know the basic story and yet the movie is still very interesting and even a bit suspenseful is a tribute to Spielbergs movie making ability. Then you combine that with some great performances. DDL was amazing as always and Tommy Lee give a great performance because he doesn't go over the top which he often does. He shows some restraint which is nice. And Sally Field was excellent as the angry/sad/crazy Mary.
    All in all folks go see it! it's a good movie.

  • googergieger

    So it isn't about a car?

  • Yeah, I was waiting for shirtless McConaughey to show up and all I get instead is beard.

  • B-Unit

    Point #1 isn't entirely correct. The EP did not "free the slaves," it merely granted "freedom" to slaves in rebelling states, not every state. (The wording in the EP basically relates the slaves as "property" and not as people to boot). And in actuality, Lincoln didn't need to do that (and shouldn't get credit for it) because - in a little known fact - Congress had passed a law about a month prior which read nearly exact as the EP, only no one seemed to take notice of it.

  • Robert

    I heard "War Horse with People." I'm still deciding whether or not that compels me to see it beyond "bitch, you have to review it for work."

  • Artemis

    So I finally got to see this... and I kind of hated it.

    Don't get me wrong, every performance is technically impeccable. But the whole thing just felt incredibly heavy-handed and self-conscious. I lost count of the number of times where one of the characters (usually, but not always, Lincoln) has a "conversation" consisting of him giving an impassioned speech and then practically tipping his hat at the camera while the other person gazes in awe at him. The opening scene alone had me rolling my eyes and it only got worse from there.

    I *hate* that I didn't like it, because on paper it should have been amazing. But it just didn't do anything for me at all.

  • Monica

    Oh no, now I'm really nervous I'll hate/dislike it. I was planning to see it this weekend, so I'll find out soon. But I definitely have hated not liking something before and was already getting annoyed at how high DDL's voice seemed for Lincoln.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    The voice isn't necessarily inaccurate though. And speaking high is an orator's trick for projecting - Caesar used it.

  • Monica

    Oh good point. I guess it's more of a cognitive disconnect thing, as in I'm afraid it will take me out of the movie, making me feel like I'm not seeing Lincoln, but clearly someone else. It might just be a preemptive worry though, because I've heard nothing but good things and can't wait to see it still.

  • Klempenski

    Can I just say one thing...James Spader kills in this movie! His performance stuck out more than anybody else. Maybe it was due to him being the most humorous character, but I thought he did a terrific job in an atypical casting for himself.

  • Frankly

    James Spader! Of course! I was looking at that photo thinking, "Wow, Spielberg really took a chance casting Rob Schneider..."

  • Power Hungry Media

    Excellent article - but calling Mary Todd Lincoln a "nut case" is a bit incomplete. How sane do you think you'd be if you were a woman in that time?
    Let's see:
    - both of your parents die when you are a child,
    - you're not able to own property
    - you're only viable as someone else's spouse
    - you're not able to vote
    - you have something to say and no one listens to you
    - the thing you CAN create and care the most about and love, your children - THREE of them DIE
    - Your husband is president of the united states during war time
    - Your husband wants to send one of your remaining children off to war
    - Your husband/president is assassinated in front of you,
    - and when it's all over congress expects you to fend for yourself after your husband is dead and makes you beg for a pension.
    UH -- OKAAAAY... Just one of those sorts of incidents is enough to send a person over the edge. She needed the kind of kindness and understanding and assistance that no one of the time period could provide.

  • googergieger

    Psh. Please. The refs cheated my Denver Nuggets the other day, and I'm holding up just fine.

    ....

    Close the door behind you.
    So the world, won't find you.
    Beer, Gin, Vodka, and Whine to...
    Drink while things remind you...

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Nah, I'm gonna quibble with this. 5 of your first 6 points were true of pretty much every woman alive at the time, and they didn't get as extreme. Lots of mothers sent sons to war. And the last 2 happened after much of her hysteria.

    As I mentioned on another page, I'm pretty heavily researching Revolutionary War leaders right now, and as a non-historian a new concept for me (or an old one well-articulated) is the idea of "presentism" - when we look at the past through the ideas of today, we come to inaccurate conclusions. (ok, so rereading, I'm sounding a bit pedantic, but this is turning out to be an important thing to deal with in my research)

  • Power Hungry Media

    Interesting. I understand the concept but I'm pretty sure this is different. Did you happen to see the movie Hysteria? Really great movie. Intellectual and funny. Many women throughout history were improperly jailed or institutionalized just b/c they disagreed or would not "submit" to their husband's wills, or refused to "stay in their place" as society saw fit at the time and were labeled as having "hysteria" or were called hysterical. I think it's really important to understand the human longings and desires for freedom and expression and dignity are universal and not limited to a time in history. i.e. just because "lots of mothers sent their sons to war" doesn't mean it was easy on any of them - nor does it mean it's the right way for things to be - nor does it mean we cannot feel their pain even though they may have suffered in silence. Just because lots of AF/AM were enslaved - did not mean it was the way for things to be and that the AF/AMs would adjust to that sort of life. Presentism is not what I am referring to. I am referring to basic respect for a person's life and experiences and the right to live with dignity - at any time in history. Without that thread - we keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. And re-runs are boring - in history and on television.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Understanding human longings and desires for freedom etc IS certainly important, and the basic point of most art. But it's also important to remember that those longings and desires are not defined the same ways throughout all periods of history.

    Mary Lincoln's behavior & actions - especially as she aged - demonstrate mental instability. Hysteria (which yes, the term was coined to refer to women, the name comes from a female body part after all) was certainly incorrectly applied a great deal in the past few centuries. I just don't think it is in her specific case.

  • BierceAmbrose

    the idea of "presentism" - when we look at the past through the ideas
    of today, we come to inaccurate conclusions. (ok, so rereading, I'm
    sounding a bit pedantic, but this is turning out to be an important
    thing to deal with in my research)

    Stupid reading. It'll change what you know, and maybe even how you think. (Kidding aside, good for you. We're so fortunate in our "present" to have access to such broad information and the ability to put time into side issues. Certainly more free time & resources than say, 1860s America.)

  • pajiba

    Fair point!

  • jennym84

    Thank you. The dismissal of her as a nutcase and a "hysterical woman" rubbed me the wrong way in this otherwise good article.

  • Bert_McGurt

    My favourite Lincoln tidbit is the fact that John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin essentially saved Robert Todd Lincoln's life at a New Jersey train station mere months before the elder Lincoln was assassinated.

    I haven't seen the film yet (though I am excited to - who DOESN'T get excited for a Daniel Day-Lewis movie?), but even if this anecdote isn't in there it's still pretty serendipitous.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I think his wife being a nutjob is pretty well-known. Does the movie cover the fact that he had some mental instability in his past as well?

    Also, he did in fact win elections prior to the presidential election. The only re-election he won was for president, though.

  • Power Hungry Media

    Sara...thanks for the correction. re: Mary Todd Lincoln though, I do hope you'll reconsider calling her a nutjob. That's such a dismissal of her life. As a woman - it's so easy for people to dismiss us and call us "nut jobs" just b/c we are speaking up, disagree, want change in some way, etc. She was waaay more than the broken person she became. Her psyche broke under UNBELIEVABLE pressure (see the list below) but before all the tragedies stated below, she was quite accomplished for her time. If the film was told from her perspective and some random movie star played her - she would come across as the tortured soul she was. Read just a bit and you'll be surprised her life took the direction it took. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M...

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Let's be fair - it's dismissive to call almost anyone a nutjob. And I haven't seen the movie at this point. I'm not unaware of the dismissal of women's voices - I know my Gilman, my Chopin (and hey, read Emily Mann's play Mrs. Packard). But having read the wikipedia page, I'm not convinced that the pressure she faced was very different from many, many other women and political wives of the time. (save for the husband being shot in front of her eyes) She suffered from mental illnesses. She cracked. You can find stories of the political wives from the 18th & 19th centuries who raised their voices and were not silenced, and not hysterical.

    But down the line maybe I'll read a more thorough biography. Oddly enough, the biographer listed in the wiki page, Barbara Hambly, has written a few fantasy books I quite enjoy.

  • Power Hungry Media

    Yes, it's so difficult to know why one person suffers more than another - there are many aspects at work in personal drama. I do know that I've long felt and expressed Mary Todd Lincoln was not treated fairly by history writers. When a woman finally pens her story - it will be interesting to see more depth.

  • pajiba

    I stand corrected! Damn public school education.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    It's that Pass It On poster, isn't it? :)

  • ElvisCostelegram

    Thaddeus Stevens is from Pennsylvania. But damn is that a good movie.

  • in_heaben

    Why Lincoln is not the movie you think it is, Dustin:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11...

    http://jacobinmag.com/2012/11/...

  • pajiba

    You know, I'd read that NY Times piece a while back, and while I understand the criticism, I also thought it was kind of annoying simply because Lincoln is about the Congressional debate over the 13th Amendment, and there were no black members in Congress at the time. There are a couple of black characters in the movie, and yes, while they are passive, the focus of the action in the film is on the Congressional debate, not on the people the legislation is meant to affect. That is another movie, and one that I would appreciate, but given the limitations of the focus in Lincoln, I didn't find it objectionable that characters who were not involved in the main thrust of the action were passive.

  • Artemis

    I don't think anyone is suggesting that they should have shoehorned black characters into the Congressional debate when they weren't already there. But the movie made a deliberate decision to focus solely on the Congressional debate -- a space where only white people had a role -- and to enormously exagerate its importance (as the linked articles point out, slavery was already largely dead as a practical matter *and* while the constitutional amendment was obviously important symbolically if nothing else, it could have been easily railroaded through in a special session that Lincoln had said he would call if it failed in this first go-round). At the same time, it left out any reference to the work that black people were doing to the same end, which it could easily have built into the movie in small ways even if the focus remained on Lincoln. I had NO idea watching the movie that the maid or the butler were leading figures in a political movement -- hell, I left the movie and promptly forgot both of their names, because they barely existed as characters.
    The movie isn't telling a neutral version of history. It chose to include some things and leave out others, and to emphasize the significance of some things while minimizing the impact of others. The movie wanted to tell the story of Lincoln virtually single-handedly freeing the slaves through a combination of his political genius, unyielding morality, and far-before-his-time commitment to racial equality. That's a story you can tell, but it's certainly not the complete (nor, I would argue, the most interesting) one. And it's hardly surprising, given the film's distorted view of history (both in what it left out, and in how much it misrepresented what it did show), that people are questioning why this movie chose to tell the story it did.

  • Three_nineteen

    I have a real issue with proclaiming that getting rid of the law that lets people own other people is only important "symbolically". Even if slavery was "largely dead", the fact that it was still legal to own another person means that people in the South could have still owned slaves after rejoining the Union out of spite, even if it cost them dearly. Not to mention the people outside of the "largely dead" area that still would have been slaves.

    Your comment and Dustin's comment aren't mutually exclusive. The movie can be factually flawed, biased, and leave out great swathes of important facts, and still be a good and interesting movie. No fiction based on a true story tells a neutral version of history, and most documentaries don't either.

  • Artemis

    I wasn't as clear as I should have been. The point the linked articles, and other sources I've read, make is that even in the absence of a constitutional amendment it would have been virtually impossible for southern states to reinstate slavery, given the social and political conditions after the war. But even if that wasn't the case, the Thirteenth Amendment could have been passed in a special session right after the vote portrayed in this movie, had it not succeeded. So either way, the movie is misrepresenting things in a pretty enormous way.


    And it's absolutely true that movies that are factually flawed, biased, and omit facts can be good and interesting. But that doesn't mean that criticism of those flaws is invalid, nor does it mean that this particularly movie is good despite being all of those things. And when the specific factual flaws and biases have to do with omitting entirely the role of black Americans in opposing slavery, while lionizing white Americans as their saviors -- well, that's a particularly problematic set of factual flaws and biases, and one that's worth pointing out.

  • Three_nineteen

    I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know if it is good or not. And I'm not saying that you criticisms are invalid. But your arguments have nothing to do with the article Dustin wrote. Dustin said that this movie focuses on passing the 13th amendment. I'm reading your argument as "Yes, but it doesn't talk about the things other people were doing to end slavery and the 13th amendment is irrelevant", which is a criticism about the motives of the writers and producers but not necessarily of the movie itself.

    I've seen the iMDB page for this movie. The only woman in this movie is Sally Field, who portrays a "nutcase" who is only in the film because she is married to the main character and is an example of the pressure Lincoln is under to end the war. Many prominent abolitionists were women, white and black, yet in this movie there is only one female character, and she is not an abolitionist, and apparently portrayed in a negative light. I don't like this fact, and it certainly needs to be talked about not only in relation to this film but to basically the entire film industry, but it doesn't mean I have to dismiss this particular movie as a whole.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    What I do find interesting in the Jacobin piece is the idea that "slavery was practically dead" but that post-war South still managed to massively oppress blacks even with the law in place (see the WEB DuBois comment that in the Gulf areas they couldn't leave the plantations they were born on). I'm getting contradictory positions there.

  • Artemis

    Slavery, as a legal concept, was pretty much dead -- but as a practical matter, that just meant that the South got a lot more creative about oppressing black people after the war. Sharecropping, for example, was often structured in a way that resulted in the sharecropper owing more to the landowner than he made from farming, until he was so far into debt that he was forced to sign what a contract submitting to what was basically "voluntary" indentured servitude. All of the former slave states also passed Black Codes that made pretty much everything a crime for black people (including not signing yearly labor contracts), and then punishing lawbreakers with forced labor, i.e. slavery.


    That all feeds into why the Thirteenth Amendment is seen as being of limited utility. Extremely important symbolically, but just outlawing slavery didn't do a whole lot to stop slave states from finding other ways to force black people into basically the same position. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments actually did a lot more to start to dismantle the slave system and its legacy.

  • Artemis

    Dammit, why does Disqus eat my paragraph breaks 50% of the time I post! Sorry for the giant block of text.

  • in_heaben

    Understandable, but it does get tiring when movies like this come out touting their historical awareness then go on to present outmoded historical arguments (and manufactured suspense about the 13th Amendment). And yes, its about Lincoln and the Congressional debate, but there's no reason not to provide context. And I definitely disliked Kushner's characterization of Stevens and the Reconstruction during interviews (which I believe the Jacobin article highlighted).

  • icecreammang

    props to the jacobin link

  • in_heaben

    Good read. I really enjoyed the takedown of Kushner in regards to his ideas about moderates versus radicals

  • Devin McMusters

    Wow, thanks for the link to that NY Time story!

  • in_heaben

    Of course!

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