A Review by Mark S. Reinhart
As a lifelong Lincoln admirer and author of Abraham Lincoln on Screen, I was completely thrilled when I learned that the legendary director Steven Spielberg was making a film based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb Lincoln biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It took a long time for Spielberg to get that movie made (especially for us rabid Lincolnphiles!), but the wait was so worth it! Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role is an extraordinary film, and it is completely unlike any Lincoln-related big screen work ever made. And believe me, when I make this assessment, I know what I am talking about—after all, there is really no one else in the world who has spent as much time watching Lincoln films as I have!
In the wake of Lincoln’s release, critics and the media will probably bring up famous Lincoln films such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) starring Henry Fonda and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) starring Raymond Massey. Those films really do not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with Lincoln—they are well-made, entertaining dramas, but they have very little to do with the real Lincoln. The plot of Lincoln is almost completely about Lincoln—it chronicles many of the events that took place in Lincoln’s life right before he was assassinated in April 1865.
Here is perhaps the most important thing that audiences know about Lincoln as they head in to see the film—the time period that the film focuses on is so narrow that it only covers a tiny sliver of Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln was president from early 1861 to early 1865, and the film only chronicles several months of those four years. Here’s a laundry list of just some of the momentous events in Lincoln’s presidency that Lincoln does not take on—Lincoln’s First Inaugural, the rebel attack on Fort Sumter, the Battle of Antietam, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s election to a second term!
So it probably is less than accurate to say that Lincoln is “based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” After all, that book covers Lincoln’s entire life and the lives of his cabinet members, and the movie covers just a bit of all of that ground. But in all fairness, it should be pointed out that Lincoln’s life and presidency was so epic and far-ranging that any movie that would try to adequately cover it all would probably have to be about 20 hours in length!
So what Lincoln does is basically narrow its focus to one particular momentous historical event. And that event is a biggie—the film chronicles Lincoln’s efforts to secure Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that permanently abolished the practice of slavery in the United States. Truthfully, Lincoln is probably too broad of a title for the film—a more accurate title would have been Lincoln and the 13th Amendment.
At any rate, the film’s depiction of Lincoln’s last months and the 13th Amendment fight is flat-out brilliant. Lincoln is so well written, directed and acted that I believe the film will find audiences not only for years, but also for generations, to come. As a lifelong admirer of Lincoln, the film did not just move me—it completely overwhelmed me, and it will be a part of me for the rest of my life. I’ve been through over a century of Lincoln-related screen works, and I feel that Lincoln is an achievement in that genre that will probably never be topped.
Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner paint a remarkably detailed and historically accurate portrait of Lincoln in the film. They capture Lincoln as the historical icon that we are all so familiar with, but they also capture Lincoln as the flesh-and-blood man who was so often hard to know. Lincoln’s Lincoln is a principle-driven politician who has no problem being deceptive when he thinks he needs to, a loving father who cannot find a way to emotionally connect with his oldest son, and a well-meaning husband who is often estranged from his wife because their life together has been filled with such sorrow and tragedy.
Spielberg and Kushner’s interpretation of Lincoln is wonderfully well-acted by Daniel Day-Lewis—his appearance, voice and mannerisms bring Lincoln to life so effectively that he is simply a joy to watch every second he is on the screen. It’s funny, though, out of the scores of actors that have played Lincoln, Day-Lewis is not quite my personal all-time favorite. I would have to rank him a close second behind Hal Holbrook, who played the role so memorably in the 1974-76 TV miniseries Sandburg’s Lincoln. In my opinion, Holbrook looked more like Lincoln in that production than Day-Lewis, mainly because Holbrook’s makeup was so involved—he was fitted with false cheekbones, false ears, a false nose, a wig and false beard! And even more importantly, Holbrook as Lincoln spoke in a high braying voice, with a pronounced Kentucky accent. In my opinion, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln voice is a bit too refined and restrained to capture what the real Lincoln probably would have sounded like.
I think that is worth pointing out that I suspect that Steven Spielberg himself might have taken a bit of time to appreciate Sandburg’s Lincoln while he was in the process of making Lincoln. There are a number of scenes in Spielberg’s film that remind me very much of the series, and this is not just because they cover a lot of the same historical ground—these scenes in the film feature staging and camera angles that to me are strikingly similar to scenes in the series. And of course, Spielberg even chose to cast Holbrook in Lincoln—the actor memorably played Francis Preston Blair. In casting Holbrook, could Spielberg have been paying a subtle tribute to this classic TV version of Lincoln? By the way, I mean all of this as a compliment to Spielberg—Sandburg’s Lincoln is so good that I believe the director had every right to be inspired by the series when making his film.
I should also point out that even though I like Holbrook’s Lincoln portrayal a bit better than Day-Lewis’s Lincoln portrayal, Lincoln is hands-down a more historically accurate work than Sandburg’s Lincoln. Sandburg’s Lincoln tended to paint the historical events it depicted in very broad, general strokes, resulting in a number of inaccurate and misleading scenes. So to recap—I love Day-Lewis’s Lincoln portrayal in Lincoln as much as I love the film itself.
All of Lincoln’s supporting actors are as wonderful as Day-Lewis. Sally Field delivers a compelling, sympathetic portrait of Mary Lincoln—her Mary is intelligent, witty and charming, but she is also so emotionally overwrought that she is on the verge of mental collapse. Lincoln’s list of great performances goes on and on—David Strathairn as William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens are just a few of the film’s standouts. And as I just mentioned, that classic TV Lincoln Hal Holbrook shows up in Lincoln, delivering a gruff, memorable performance as Francis Preston Blair.
Here's one more thing I love about Lincoln. I’m thrilled with the film's leisurely pace—Spielberg really allowed most of its action and dialogue to move in a rhythm that felt very “19th century.” In this day and age, films so often charge at you like a racehorse out of the gate – but Lincoln moves at a pace that lets you really savor all of its nuances.
Of course, those of us who have spent many years studying Lincoln can find a few things in the film that aren’t quite right. For example, its opening scenes when everyone seems to have learned the Gettysburg Address by early 1865 don’t really ring true. And the noted historian James McPherson took issue with the amount of profanity in the film, especially the profanity Lincoln used—he found it to be “a modern injection into Lincoln’s rhetoric.”
The historical inaccuracy in the film that personally bothered me the most is the film’s “Connecticut controversy.” Tony Kushner decided to depict two of that state’s house members voting against the 13th Amendment, when in reality all four of the state’s members voted for the amendment! This historical inaccuracy was noted by Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney, who requested that the error be corrected for the film’s home video release. I agree with Courtney’s contention that this error should have been addressed. After all, the real-life vote was so dramatically close—so why change the facts surrounding it even one little bit? Worse yet, why would you ever change those facts in a way that would degrade a state that was actually on the right side of history?
But when all is said and done, Lincoln is such a great film that I am willing to let Kushner off the hook for the missteps I've just discussed. In fact, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis, and for everyone involved in the making of this cinematic triumph. Since I am such a dedicated admirer of Lincoln, I suppose some of you might think that my wildly positive opinion of this film is less than objective. Well, I guess I’ll have to plead guilty to that charge—I’m crazy about Lincoln, and I’m crazy about this film! Still, I have to believe that Lincoln is going to appeal to a much broader audience than just us crazy Lincolnphiles—a film this wonderful deserves to be seen by a lot of people.