Despite Minor Flaws, Spielberg’s Lincoln Worthwhile Viewing for History Geeks

Finding enjoyable movie fare for American history geeks typically presents a challenge. The nature of the genre leaves diehard purists perpetually frustrated. Yet even those of us willing to allow some minor transgressions of fact or character to pass too often are disappointed by the shallow Hollywood luster that insults its audience and kicks a compelling true story to the curb. Now and again, though, one can leave the theater with a contented smile.

On Friday evening my wife and I took in Lincoln at the local multiplex. The usher at Arvada’s Olde Town Stadium Theatre entered the nearly packed auditorium and gave some introductory remarks about the movie’s production and casting. The movie, already a long time in director Steven Spielberg‘s conception, delayed an extra year to give lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis time to research and immerse himself in authentic historic character.

To great effect, the director patiently agreed. Day-Lewis’ performance as the 16th President is not only masterful, but Oscar-worthy. Taking the marble off the man, he eschewed the Hollywood shortcuts for a historically accurate voice (more shrill and tinny than booming and baritone). Lincoln emanates through the screen. Lincoln the father struggles to be attentive, often including his young Tad in important meetings. Lincoln the lawyer (“a sturdy profession”) recollects stories that drive home important principles and strategies, or breaks up the tension with one especially memorable account.

More so, however, Lincoln the statesman shines through. Day-Lewis on screen wrestles with some of the overwhelming challenges that the historical record shows clearly burdened the 16th President. Whether in frank conversations with his assembled Cabinet or just his confidante and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), or even in an imagined exchange with the First Lady’s modiste and ex-slave Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), his instinctive disdain for slavery and adherence to the Declaration of Independence’s principles shine forth alongside his understanding of the dangers of advancing policies without popular consent.

Understandably, the political Lincoln takes the lead (a fact which should at least attract the attention of my former masters adviser and Pulitzer-winning historian Mark Neely). A longtime Illinois Whig and Republican political hand and former elected representative, he demonstrated a keen understanding of the sausage-making process. The movie’s story line — significantly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s substantial tome Team of Rivals — revolves around the feverish effort to get the House of Representatives to formally propose the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States. Almost as memorable a performance comes from Tommy Lee Jones as cantankerous Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

So is the movie historically accurate? As historian and movie consultant Harold Holzer highlights, plenty of the small details fail the test (no, I didn’t catch them all myself, though I did catch one Holzer doesn’t list: the anachronistic use of the word bipartisan). But Spielberg successfully depicted most of the important characters (Sally Fields‘ Mary Todd Lincoln received too sympathetic a treatment in my estimation) and pieces of the timeline, as well as the war-weary spirit of early 1865.

My biggest complaint regards an omission, and an unsurprising one at that. Spielberg’s team fell prey to the same oversight that plagues many academics who are secular fellow travelers. As George Rable pointed out in his fresh and thorough Civil religious history God’s Almost Chosen Peoples:

…the absence of virtually any reference to religious forces in the standard Civil War narratives is remarkable. That in itself would have struck those in the Civil War generation as very odd because many of them believed that the origin, course, and outcome of the war all reflected God’s will.

The exception? The excerpt of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address that serves as the movie’s capstone. But Lincoln is primarily a political tale, and the man at the story’s center did not adhere to organized religion. So the general defect is a minor one that detracts but little from the film.

I don’t get out to the movies often. But when I do, I really like it to be a worthwhile experience. Spielberg’s Lincoln fits the bill. Hopefully, viewing the movie inspires more non-geeks to read into the life and times of America’s 16th President, his principles and achievements. There’s no shortage of good essential literature with which to start. (4 stars out of 5)

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