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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.