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Lincoln Film Review

Film Metadata

Title: Lincoln

Year: 2012

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin

Producer: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy

How I accessed the film: Prime Video

Film sources: The main source used to create Kushner’s idea of Lincoln was Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. However, Kushner used a variety of primary and secondary sources. The main primary source used by Kushner was Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865. Some of his secondary sources included Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Schenk, and Amendment by Michael Vorenberg. A full list of all sources used by Kushner can be found here.

There are two main themes in the movie Lincoln. The first is the 13th amendment. The entire plot of the movie is centered around Lincoln in the final year of the Civil War. During this time, there is a large push for the passing of the 13th amendment. Not only is Lincoln trying to end the war, but he is also attempting to change society for the better. For the amendment to pass, Lincoln must gauge the public’s opinion on the matter. There is a scene in Lincoln that depicts this exact interaction. During Lincoln’s days in office, it was socially acceptable to take your issues directly to the president himself. Within the scene of the movie (14:00-19:04), Lincoln and Secretary Seward are greeted by a man and wife from Missouri with concerns about a toll booth. According to the man, the toll booth belonged to his grandfather, however, it is now being “illegally held” by General Schofield of the Union army. Secretary Seward then asks Mr. and Mrs. Jolly if they had heard about the proposed 13th amendment. The couple proceeds to explain that they are in favor of the amendment because it will end the war. However, if there was another way to end the war without abolishing slavery, they would prefer that instead. This scene emphasized the complexities around the creation of the 13th amendment. It accurately portrayed the mindset of those who wished the war would end.

The second theme of the film is the compromising of politicians for the greater good—the film dealt largely with politicians from completely opposite ends of the aisle working in congress together. The main divide within the house is those pro-slavery and that pro-abolition. Lincoln is attempting to get two very stubborn groups to work together to save the union. Lincoln was dealing with many complex issues at a single time. The main reason for the war beginning, according to Lincoln, was the issue of slavery. There is a scene within the film (1:39:00-1:46:48) where Lincoln finally loses his temper on his cabinet. After arguments pass back and forth over the table, Lincoln passionately declares that the amendment must pass to save the union. I have found a shorter clip of the scene from YouTube and have included it here.Lincoln Movie Scene

Most of this film is historically accurate, however, there are some inaccuracies. The most historically accurate depiction in the film is Lincoln himself. The prioritization of Lincoln’s accuracy left some other characters’ accuracy to fall to the waist side. According to Joshua Zeitz from The Atlantic wrote “the depiction of the president and his political challenges to be “masterful” but finds extensive fault with the one-dimensional portraits of nearly all the president’s men.”[1] Some other historical inaccuracies include the simplified role of African Americans in the abolition of slavery.[2] Another inaccuracy was pointed out by Princeton graduate Benjamin Schmidt. When discussing the language used in the film, Schmidt said, “There were many problems of that nature, from important but modern phrases such as ‘racial equality” to gritty non-period-styling cursing”[3] The movie does accurately portray Lincoln’s persona and the nature of wartime. It also did a good job of displaying the complexities of politics.

If I was given the choice, I would include this movie in a lesson plan concerning the Civil War and the 13th amendment. I believe an interesting way to use this film would be to create a portrayal of the debate that occurred over the 13th amendment. Before beginning the lesson, I will address the historical inaccuracies displayed in the film. Clarifying these inaccuracies will better prepare them for the lesson and their understanding of this event. Each student will be assigned a character (Lincoln, Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, etc.) and given copies of primary documents that are from their assigned character. Students will research their given character and prepare for a debate “on the floor house”. During their research, students will consider the questions:

  1. Why do I believe what I believe?
  2. What are my morals?
  3. How does my status in society affect my life?
  4. What do I have to lose or gain from this?
  5. What will my constituents think of me?

The goal of this lesson is to place students inside the minds of those who took part in the actual event. After the debate, students will then vote on whether to pass the 13th amendment. Students will then write a comparison essay of their debate, with that depicted in the film.

[1] Matthew Pinsker,  David Broadhurst on July 5. “Historians React to the ‘Lincoln’ Movie.” Emancipation Digital Classroom, 7 Feb. 2013, lincoln-movie/.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

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