Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)

Posted: November 25, 2012 in Drama


It is January 1865.  The Civil War is entering its fourth bloody year.  Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) is afraid that the Emancipation Proclamation, instituted by Lincoln two years prior, might be struck down after the Civil War ends.  So Lincoln wants to pursue a more permanent solution to the slavery issue, he wants to pass the 13th amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery, through the House of Representatives.  The problem is that Lincoln needs about 20 Democratic votes to get the amendment passed, and Democrats were fervently opposed to abolishing slavery.  So William Seward (David Strathairn) hatches a plan with the help of W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) to bribe democratic lawmakers with political patronage jobs to make them vote in favor of the amendment.  Conservative Republicans, led by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) want a promise from Lincoln to start to negotiate a peaceful end to the Civil War with the Confederates, in exchange for their vote to support the amendment.  Lincoln wants to use the passage of the 13th amendment as pressure against the Confederates to end the Civil War.  As if there wasn’t enough pressure on Lincoln, he learns that his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt) wants to join the Union army, something Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) bitterly opposes, because she had lost one son, Willie to tuberculosis. Does Lincoln get the 20 votes needed from the Democrats to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery?

I hope those of you reading this blog know how this was resolved.  I liked this movie, but only as entertainment, as history it left a little to be desired. Hollywood likes to portray Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, but really his first priority was to save the Union.  People with a cursory knowledge of American history won’t understand that, and this movie does nothing to disabuse the impression of Lincoln as the man who freed the slaves.  Also, there is no mention of Fredrick Douglass, the great black abolitionist.  Not a peep.  If Lincoln came around to the abolitionist point of view, it was only because people like Douglass were in his ear, prodding him along towards emancipation.  Instead we get to hear the freemen’s point of view from black soldiers or a mulatto house servant, but the abolitionist point of view is most forcefully presented by Thaddeus Stevens, a white Republican legislator.

The history that they did get right was mostly about Mrs. Lincoln, most experts believe she suffered from depression and was probably bi-polar, the mood swings of Mrs. Lincoln are shown, she is bubbly at times, at other times deeply depressed about the loss of Willie and anguished at the possible loss of her older son Robert.  Mary Todd Lincoln is a part of the Lincoln biography filmmakers usually don’t get to but kudos for Spielberg for trying to give a fuller picture here.

Whatever lapses in history there were, the acting was superb. Daniel Day Lewis will surely get an Oscar for this role, he was spellbinding.  He did drop his American accent a couple of times, but other than that the accent was dead on.  Some critics said that Sally Field was over the top in her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, I did not think so, I thought she gave a pretty measured performance.  Tommy Lee Jones simply stole the show as Thaddeus Stevens, he was brash, funny, and just a thundering presence onscreen. He should get a supporting actor nod. Hal Holbrook was very good in a smaller role, as a power playing Republican senator, and Joseph Gordon Leavitt was also good in a smaller role as Lincoln’s conflicted son Robert.  All in all, this is a very good movie about a pivotal year in American history.

Lincoln.  A great movie…honest.


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