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Politicians are not known for their honesty. So how did one well-known president garner the title, Honest Abe? This nickname is far too simplistic for the man who carried a nation during its darkest days of civil war and political strife, for the man who used political genius and old-fashioned wisdom to conquer evils of his age and transform America forever. Showing Lincoln as a savvy politician willing to stretch or break the rules, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, suggests that the President did not gain the “Honest” title from any lack of practical deception.
Yet despite showing a president who walks a fine line between right and wrong in a film that crosses that line too many times with offensive language and violence, Lincoln does have something positive to offer—a poignant, thought-provoking, and respectful look behind the iconic mask at a man who will do and sacrifice anything for what he believes is right.
With the country divided while the devastating Civil War languishes on, there has never been a more tumultuous time to be President of the United States of America. But the people must believe that Abraham Lincoln is up to the task, since they re-elected him for another term. What many of those same people may not realize, however, is the intention that Lincoln has for this new term—to bring slavery in America to an end.
Battling discouragement on every side, including friendly fire from his own Cabinet members and even his wife, Lincoln trudges on in his pursuit of ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment. This amendment to the constitution would ensure the freedom of the African Americans whose enslavement is at the heart of the Civil War conflict. But if even Lincoln’s usual supporters are against his efforts, how can he hope to make it succeed?
The clock is ticking in the window of opportunity that Lincoln sees to push through the amendment. If he can convince the House of Representatives that passing the amendment would end the war of the states, then he may have a chance at abolishing slavery. The lives of thousands, even millions are at stake and among them is a father and husband who also happens to be a shrewd, burdened, and lonely politician named Abraham Lincoln.
The inimitable, mysterious, and complex true-life person of Abraham Lincoln is an ideal match for master storyteller Steven Spielberg. Spielberg specializes in portraying the heart of a character through a compelling tale, and his effort to do so in this film results in a riveting realization of Lincoln the likes of which has previously never appeared on screen.
In Lincoln, this legendary president comes alive with a fascinating realism and depth that shatters the familiar one-dimensional image and replaces it with a man who is at once relatable and extraordinary. Here, viewers see from subtle gestures and amusing allegorical stories a man who loved many and knew how to motivate them to do what he himself was aiming for—to do right. While some inaccuracies exist in the telling of this segment in Lincoln’s life, the film adheres to most of the historical facts of the events in the story and employs many of Lincoln’s documented words for dialogue.
It is in Lincoln’s dialogue, however, that some obvious errors emerge when he uses profanities and obscenities several times in the film, employing language and terms that the real Lincoln would never have spoken (historical accounts actually detail Lincoln confronting military generals for using foul language). A few liberties are also taken when the screenplay ventures to fill in details of Lincoln’s relationship with his wife, Mary. While still overall a positive representation of marriage, this movie version of the “first couple” shows them having difficulties, arguments, and feelings that may or may not be accurate.
Such conflict makes for interesting stories, so this type of dramatic license is hardly unusual. What may be more surprising for some comes with stronger evidence for historical accuracy. In the fight to abolish slavery in the U.S., Lincoln shows a political savvy that includes going along with a campaign to bribe some Representatives to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln and Sec. William H. Seward find ways to avoid technically breaking laws or incurring liability, but they are, in reality, buying votes. Lincoln does a similar dance with honesty and deception in other situations when he plays with words to hide truths that may thwart his efforts to end slavery.
The end, even when it is the abolishment of something as horrific as slavery, never justifies the means. Thus, though Lincoln has several redeeming qualities, thanks to the means he employs in this movie, Lincoln as a film hero is not entirely admirable or safe to emulate.
Like character, like film—Lincoln could be described with the same terms. In the case of the movie, the apparent end is telling an uplifting story about an inspiring historical figure who had the courage to do what is right whatever the cost. The means, sadly, does not always match that laudable intention. The aforementioned foul language that Abe Lincoln unrealistically uses is just the tip of the iceberg.
The movie contains well over a dozen profane uses of God’s name (and Jesus), even more uses of “d--n,” as well as several of “s---,” “h---,” “b--ch,” “f---,” and the n-word referring to African Americans. This foul language does nothing to contribute to the story and the realism defense cannot possibly be applied here, as several of the obscenities, as well as the frequency of the offensive language in the film in the situations portrayed, only serve as another glaring historical inaccuracy.
Another issue is the violence and gruesome depictions of the aftermath of battles. This content may be more defensible on the grounds of attempting to illustrate the horrors of war, but such a graphic approach (which includes showing a cart full of bloody body parts being dumped on an ample heap of the same) is unnecessary to convey that message. Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s policy still holds true—what is left to the imagination has a more powerful effect.
Just as Lincoln’s character in this film has upsides, the production does, as well. The screenplay is strongly written with well-drawn characters and smart choices in adapting historical events and people to a film. The exception to the screenplay’s success occurs at the close of the film, which should have ended with the scene before the final sequence. This mistake, however, is ultimately more the fault of the director (and/or editor) rather than the writer, as Spielberg uncharacteristically trades in a subtle, artistic ending for a heavy-handed, predictable one.
This falter is one of the few (from a filmmaking perspective) in Lincoln. Intentionally shadowed and dark, the lighting of this piece is, at times, breathtaking. The sophisticated use of shades of darkness throughout the film sets the stage for (and delivers) Lincoln’s most powerful moment when almost blinding light physically and symbolically breaks through.
Other scenes of impact come from the impressive performances that Spielberg always seems to elicit from his actors. At the head of the cast is Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role of Abe Lincoln. The difficulties of playing Lincoln in such a gritty film are obvious, but Day-Lewis turns in an unmatched performance. Not settling for the usual Abe Lincoln impersonation, Day-Lewis brings viewers a real Lincoln—conveying at once the remarkable compassion, intelligence, persuasiveness, character, vision, and country-boy persona that baffled and captivated the American public in the actual Lincoln’s day.
Day-Lewis is complimented by Sally Field, a surprising choice who nevertheless delivers in her emotional role as Mary Todd Lincoln. While the historical accuracy of this version of Mary is shaky, Field’s performance is not, as she and Day-Lewis find chemistry in the scenes of conflict and those of peace. The two lead characters are amply supported by a “who’s who” list of well-known and highly respected actors. Among them are David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Hal Holbrook.
Production values, however, are only one part of the “means” of this film, and they are not enough to offset the effect of the negative elements that interfere with the message of Lincoln. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln’s poor choices and wrong actions in attempting to emancipate the slaves (whether true or invented only for this film) are not right, even though his intentions are pure.
Through these mistakes, this story of Lincoln serves as a reminder that God sometimes chooses to use imperfect people to bring about His good and perfect will. It was never necessary for Lincoln or other emancipation supporters to deceive or manipulate—the Lord could have abolished slavery through honesty and purity. Yet, He still used these flawed people and turned their poor methods into something good in the end.
The doles of unnecessary (and unrealistic) offensive language will make this film inappropriate for many viewers, while the violence and gore will make it a poor choice for others. But those who believe it wise to wade through this content with discernment may find something good in the end.