Movie Review: Spielberg’s “Lincoln” Portrays Politics Behind 13th Amendment

I try not to know too much about movies before I review them. With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s latest entry into historical drama released across the US Nov. 16, 2012, I confess I had two biases at work.

The first came from the headline of an early review that proclaimed Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln to be “wooden.” My second bias was that I already knew a good deal about Lincoln as a student of history. Although I respected much of his leadership, I didn’t always agree with Lincoln on his policy decisions.

But I’d hardly be alone there.

So not knowing what to expect, I was a little surprised to see that the 149-minute movie looks only at a narrow sliver of Lincoln’s presidency. Based on the book Team of Rivals: Lincoln Film Tie-in Edition by Doris Kearns Goodwin (an excellent read, by the way), Lincoln portrays the political machinations behind Lincoln’s attempt to get the 13th Amendment to end slavery through the US House of Representatives a few months before the end of the war and his subsequent assassination.

In many ways, I felt as if I had been plunked down in the middle of the tale. Those less familiar with Civil War history might find the experience a bit disconcerting. The film uses the relatively brief historical period of only a few months to portray Lincoln as a master political strategist. It is through that lens that we get insight into Lincoln’s leadership style, his family challenges, and inner wrestling with the stresses of leading a country at war with itself.

As Spielberg aptly portrays, not even Lincoln always agreed his rights existed to do certain things, but as Lewis’ character proclaims, “I decided I needed them [rights] to exist to uphold the Constitution…. I felt the war demanded it…. I hoped….” Spielberg’s Lincoln is thus a humbling look at a great — but conflicted — man. Lincoln seems a man out-gifted but not outwitted, out-styled but not outmaneuvered, out-resourced but persevering in the relentless pursuit of his goal — passing the 13th Amendment and ending the war. And paying a high price for it.

As expected of any Spielberg historical work, the film is rich in historical accuracy and attention to detail. It is also blunt in its portrayal of opinions of the day regarding slavery. Expect to hear some language that would be rightly offensive, but historically accurate. Spielberg does a fairly good job of presenting the various arguments of the day, so that those who opposed abolition are not simply cast as insane monsters. For the most part.

The film gives a decent voice to the Confederate arguments; however, during the scenes of negotiations for peace between Lincoln and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), it’s hard to miss the lighting that make Stephens look like a one-eyed monster, complete with a hint of lunatic thrown in. Lincoln, on the other hand, though he looks increasingly haggard, always has the pithy remark, always a weighty and wise story, and always a well-timed-if-somewhat-slowly-developing subtle piece of humor. In short, he’s always the good guy.

I was left wandering, did this guy have any faults? My favorite line came from Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) when Lincoln paused in the midst of a crisis to tell yet another story: “I don’t believe that I can bear to hear another one of your stories right now!” I suspect many wanted to say the same thing often enough, but lacked the courage. You might find yourself muttering the same thing as you break for a popcorn refill.

The external tension in the tale arises as Lincoln and his team attempt to push the 13th Amendment through Congress against resistance from the Democrats. But the real tension comes from within Lincoln himself as he tries to balance the prospect of ending the war with the reality that ending the war might mean the end of leverage needed to pass the 13th Amendment. You can feel the frustration withing Lewis’ character as he wrestles with the political realities, bending the means when needed to justify what he considers a more worthy end.

As for Lewis’ performance, I thought it was really quite good, a realistic portrayal of how most American’s perceive their 16th President. For those who say his performance was “wooden,” well,  it was Abraham Lincoln. I wasn’t exactly expecting Robin Williams.  Lewis does better than a fine job. In fact, I think his performance rescues a plot that otherwise get’s pretty bogged down at times when most of the tension is going on inside the main character’s head and heart.

As a father of younger children and a man of faith, I’m always keeping an eye on content with those things in mind. The film is rated PG-13 for a few intense scenes of war brutality and scattered profanity throughout, including a few from Lincoln himself. I found that portrayal pretty typical of what you’d expect the halls of Washington to sound like, for better or for worse. I expected the assassination scene to be gory, but Spielberg deals with it off-camera, focusing instead on the emotional impact on Lincoln’s son — yet another reason to keep the younger kids away for now. I’ll wait until my children reach their mid-teen years, then watch it with them after prepping them first.

The bigger concern, frankly, is that they will just think Lincoln is boring. And you might, too, unless you’re a history or leadership buff. As a celebration of the end of slavery, it certainly has merit, although the story of William Wilberforce as told in in Amazing Grace made for more captivating cinema.

My take on Lincoln? Meh.

It was pretty good, for a historical drama. But I wouldn’t change my plans to go see it. I probably won’t bother to see it again. And I like history.

I think you could wait for the DVD and still not miss much.

[FYI: Some of the above links may be affilliate links, which means I get a few pennies if you purchase something through them, though it doesn’t cost you anything more.]

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  • Paul Mazzuchelli


    I just saw the movie today, and thought that it was visually inspire along with wonderful acting by all. At least I went in with an open mind and did not fall asleep.

    • I’d agree with the visually inspiring comment. It was well done, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t see most people being that enthralled with it. Could be wrong. I was more intrigued by the ideas Lincoln wrestled with. I didn’t mention Sally Fields role as Mrs. Lincoln, but she was superb also.

      • Bob Hendrick

        Abraham Lincoln was a great president. Perhaps, the greatest. However, never in all my readings and/or pictorials about this great historical figure, have I been so moved after watching Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
        The complex political situations that came to light about the passing of the 13th ammendment, and how Lincoln handled them, made me realize for the first time, why he earned his place in our history and the history of the world.
        This was no ordinary man; yet Speilberg humanized Lincoln–with all his flaws; while never diminishing his greatness. No mean feat.
        One of the last scenes in the film, was him leaving the White House for his appointment with destiny. As his servant watched Lincoln walk slowly down the hall, I found myself hoping that he would call out to him not to leave–I was moved to tears.
        In this age, with the emphasis on creating films that are digitally enhanced with a lack of any substance, many will be bored with “Lincoln”–a testament to our times.
        Let me just say that I admit to being an anachronism; obviously, so is Steven Spielberg–thank God!

        • I agree, Bob that that scene with the servant was one of the more moving ones in the film.

    • Were you surprised by the narrow focus of the film on the 13th Amendment process?

      • Connie Sexauer

        I am an historian and thought it was an excellent film. Personally I believe everyone should see it – especially students. It would be a great film to show with a discussion following. Daniel Day-Lewis was an excellent choice to play Lincoln as he became Lincoln – Lincoln at his finest.

        • Thanks, Connie. I too thought it was good from a historical perspective. And I agree about the discussion portion.

      • clay

        I was not impressed. I am a history and Linclon fan, but totally surprised that the narrow focus on this film was sooooo myopic! It should have been called The 13th Amendment, not Linclon. We left before the end, as my wife was not as history-starved as myself. ‘Very sad to have wasted our money on this sorry excuse for entertainment.

        • Clay, Did you read my review first? Maybe next time :). I suspected it would not be that appealing to non-history buffs.

          Thanks for the comment. Hope you at least got some good popcorn.

  • OP HIP

    —Aside from the obvious ‘on board’ propaganda for the rollout of
    Obama’s second term – – -WHO needs it?

    Surely ‘Lincoln’ has been done-to-death, and already with Sally Field.

    The ONLY relevant, indeed, urgently relevant thing left to examine
    about Lincoln was his quite possibly –FATAL– diss of Global USURY banking.

    SEE ‘Money Masters’ documentary documentary online (22 MILLION views already)
    —-then see if you can stomach Spielberg’s latest PC moral alibi.

  • PJ

    I agree with your assessment of the film. I am a history teacher and found it bogged down in dialogue. I read the book it was based on and found (although I know they are limited by time and can’t present all the book information) they plucked us down right in the middle without development or a clear indication of who was who (except for Lincoln of course). I took my students from an AP US History class and they found it dragged and uninteresting. I think we all agreed that Lewis did a fantastic job as Lincoln. He became Lincoln for me in every way. And the acting from the other members of the cast was good. But this is not a movie I would recommend to show anyone who isn’t a big Civil War buff. It is too detailed, to over reaching while, at the same time, short changing us about development of events.

    • Well put.

    • CBBarb

      I catnapped a bit after 30 minutes or so, had trouble telling the characters apart, and never did quite understand what was going on. Did Lincoln actually prolong the war because he was afraid the amendment wouldn’t pass if it ended? Yikes.

    • bronxite10

      Hard to believe that a history teacher of an AP History course, no less, together with his students could have been so detached from a great movie. Maybe that is an indication of the level of history teaching available to high school students. My high school history teacher of a generation ago would have been enthralled by the movie, as was I. Of course, my high school history teacher also taught things like philosophy, gave us a basic primer on Keynsian economics, had us explore third party movements, and the dilemmas of those who strove to keep the Union together before the Civil War. I’m not sure I would want PJ teaching my kid.

      • Sorry to hear about the Keynesian economics thing. As a history piece, it was good, maybe great. But no way to get around the boring side with teens no matter how smart they may be.

        • Sammy

          Bill, good blog.
          I have seen Lincoln twice now, and I was profoundly moved by it, both times. Its historic plausibility — not necessarily perfectly accurate, but definitely not a gross distortion — added new dimension and understanding, and was very heartening. One of the more interesting tidbits of information I’ve uncovered in my quest to learn more about our 16th President is that the ORIGINAL 13th Amendment of 1861 (which was never ratified, but is still pending) was written to ensure slave states that slavery would always be allowed in slave states. It passed both houses of Congress, but then the South seceded, and war ensued, and so it never went to states for ratification. So, the South had no reason to secede, slavery in their states being protected, had they not seceded, and instead participated in its ratification. So, why did they secede? Because at that juncture protecting slavery where it existed wasn’t enough for the South: The South wanted extension of slavery into the territories, and, after Dred Scott, they wanted their “right” to take their slaves into free states, as their property, just as Dred Scott had been. They not only wanted to be left alone, but they wanted the North to convince them that they DID leave them alone: They wanted the North to join them in calling slavery… “RIGHT”!

          • Sammy

            BTW, Bill, if you actually read Keynes, you will find out that he isn’t the devil….. I would strongly suggest his “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” of 1919, where he was the first to predict the emergence of Hitler from the ashes of Versailles. He really was very courageous in walking out of the peace talks in protest, as he was still young in his career, and represented the British Exchequer at the talks. That book made him a fortune. It is a profound work of scholarship, and lays out in tremendous detail the economic situation in Europe at the end of the “War to end all wars,” which he was uniquely qualified to do. His diatribe against the treaty was a tremendous piece of literature, and he risked his career coming out against his own government. He went on to be a financial advisor for Cambridge, and made them several fortunes, as well as making several fortunes on his own. Today his economics are derided, as they are associated with our current administration: However, that critique does not hold up under scrutiny. Thanks for hosting this excellent blog.

          • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sammy. Could it have been that the South wanted to keep the balance of power on the issue as the US expanded?

  • lizsunflower

    I saw the movie, “Lincoln” and I thought it was an excellent portrayal of history and the struggle for equality and the end of slavery with the Civil War. I am an African American, retired University Librarian and believe it was a movie that gave us a historical lesson that we can use to understand our Democracy and the election of President Obama. I also believe Pres. Obama presidency is a real life lesson in Democracy or our pursuit of a “more perfect union” for America. I think the movie shows the complexity of Lincoln and America that are often hard to understand and hard for African Americans to embrace. I believe it a fundamental need for all Americans to know “our story” and to understand we must continue to debate, discuss and make progress on this journey and the re-election of President Obama is an important move “forward” in this journey toward a “more perfect union” and we are not there yet. I believe my grandson, who is six and bi-racial will be the recipient of the benefits of our journey it a country that provides him opportunities that only a Democrary can provide. It is what my great, great grandparents believed me when they were slaves, ” a more perfect union” that provided me the opportunities they never had and allowed me to become the first woman in my family to receive a Master degree and University Librarian. I have faith in America, as did Lincoln and Pres. Obama.

  • Jeff Burdick

    I guess I differ with most commenters here. In my opinion, Spielberg’s movie, Kushner’s script and Day-Lewis’s performance are “all for the ages” and have ended the Oscar competition in each of those categories. I thought “Lincoln” was a stupendous movie and a must-see “event film” for every American. The way it shows the ugly sausage-making of deomcratic politics behind an epochal corrective moment in our history provides a timeless lesson for those in politics who still prefer to posture and personally profit than strive to continually perfect our Union as awed and respectful stewards. I also am confused by those who, on the one hand, say there was too much dialogue. (Was someone expecting a Pixar movie?) And, on the other hand, also wished the movie had been even more ambitious and tackled Lincoln’s entire life (but apparently with fewer spoken words?). Yes, the dialogue was packed full with great meaning that required far more focus and attention than a Bond film, but I found that Tony Kushner’s dialogue packed so much meaning into every poetic phrasing that it recommends an appreciative second viewing.

  • barry1817

    sorry, but saw the film and was not that impressed. didn’t like the limited scope of the film and my stereotype of how Lincoln was such that the Lincoln in this film didn’t seem to be an impressive historical figure, but far less.

  • George Knapp

    I enjoyed the movie’s look, sound, and content. But it is, after all, entertainment and too easy for us to expect more from it. I did not notice any gross misuse of history, although the piles of dead outside Petersburg were a bit overdone in my estimation. Still, as a reminder of the cost of civil war, it was acceptable. I especially enjoyed the cast — at least those I recognized playing their roles. DDL’s portrayal of Lincoln struck home with me and will remain my visual of the great emancipator. I was pleased that the writer’s did not make Mary Todd entirely insane. She was a highly educated woman raised from birth exactly for her role as supreme executive’s wife. Finally, I was greatly moved by the time allocated to Lincoln and his sons Robert and, especially, Tad.

    • I agree George. It did open a window on Lincoln and his family, but not a wide one. Thanks!

  • I am surprised at the reactions here. I found the film completely riveting. The decision to focus tightly on the machinations to pass the 13th amendment was brilliant and saved the piece from being one more admiring bioepic of Lincoln. The scene in which the vote was taken had me on the edge of my seat, even though I knew the outcome. I also appreciated the attention to small details, such as the glimpses of General Grant’s Native American staffer. I think if you disliked the film because it wasn’t what you expected, the problem is with your expectations, not the film.

  • AK Jim

    Your review was done with the gloves left on. And, that’s OK if it is your way. I, too, thought it was a very narrow treatment. Tommy Lee Jones portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens wasthe strongest in the movie. By far. DD Lewis “voice” of Lincoln often sounded like Mr. Burns from the Simpson show. I was disappointed in the film overall as were the several people who viewed it with me.

    • Wasn’t trying to leave the gloves on, Jim. Just wasn’t that impressed in either direction. And Tommy Lee Jones is pretty much always phenomenal, isn’t he?

  • Kathy Ayers

    I viewed the movie with 15 people from our Civl War Round Table. The only negative comment from this group came from two members who expected Lincoln would have been more animated in his story telling — I felt it was exactly how he would have been after four years leading a divided/war torn country. Aside from that the entire group applauded Spielberg’s rendition of this minuscuel slice of Lincoln’s presidency. Our country needed him then and could use him now. I will see it again — many times.

    • Glad to hear it, Kathy. You prove my point that the movie will likele resonate with history buffs such as yourself — and I say that with no negative connotation intended. Thanks for the comment.

  • Jenifer markoe

    I thought the movie was a little long and was not expecting the whole movie to be about the passing about the 13th amendment. The thing that I found distubing was the promises of personel gain ( prestigious positions) for those democrates who would vote yes. I guess I would like to think that are leaders are more honest then that. Instead I learned that even “Honest Abe” would look away from unethical behavior so that his ethical 13th amendment would get pass. The ethical line that we do not want are leaders to cross was just as fuzzy back then as it is today.

    • Good point. Politics can be messy business — which is why far too many Christians choose to run from it.

  • steven

    Is History what we remember, or what actually happened?

  • Johnny Reb

    1st: Lincoln kept many boarder states from succeeding by suspending the writ of habeas corpus and jailed the entire state legislator’s to prevent this from happening. Thus, If they are in jail they cannot vote for succession or not. This was mentioned once in the begging of the move but never expounded upon. In the end, VP Shephens makes the comment that Lincoln could not defeat the southern nation by democracy but by the barrel of a gun.

    2nd: The confrontation between Staton and Lincoln throws light on theory that SECDEF Stanton may have been evolved in a conspiracy the assassinate Lincoln. This subject is also touched by Bill O Really in is book about the Lincoln killing.

    3rd: I object to the inference that the Lincoln murder was a by product or retaliation to the wars end. We must remember that Lincoln took the treasury from the Bankers and began printing money. Many rumors are that John Wilkes Both was a Banking operative and Lincoln’s demise was the result of this treasury issue. Which is how Stanton gets tied in.

    4th: We must remember that the ratification process of some states was accomplished while they were under Union Marshall Law.

    5th: what a fun time they must have had in congress before the micro phone.

    He tries to make the civil war look like it was about some moral cause. Wars are always about money

    • Well, “Johnny,” while I don’t agree with all of your conclusions/observations, your first one is spot on. Lincoln seemed to believe that the ends did justify the means. As to Stanton, my memory si rusty, but wasn’t he injured in the various assasination attempts that night?

  • Linda Sandin

    I just saw the “Lincoln” movie last night. I thought the portrayal of Lincoln was excellant but I always question Hollywood’s historical renditions as truthful. Stone’s depiction of “JFK” comes to mind.

    • Good point about Hollywood’s treatment of historical events. Dances with Wolves as well as other Spielberg films come to mind. Daniel Day Lewis did give an award-worthy performance. Thanks!

  • Joe Kilinski


    I just read your review after having seen the movie a few days ago. I couldn’t agree more and I think it was a very accurate description. If you are not schooled in history a bit you would probably consider it boring. I expected also a bit more of a wide ranging picture of Lincoln and the time period but maybe that is being save for a sequel?


    • Thanks, Joe. Glad to see there are others like me out there. I don’t see much of a sequel being possible. Maybe a pre-quel? Thanks.

  • Vaibhav

    NOW, this could really be just another misinterpretation about the ‘dislike to Gloves’ at the end of the movie, But I do like to think that Lincoln gives his valet(kind of a slave) a symbolic gesture that he is free now…..If you recall from the Harry Potter series wherein Tobi gets freed from slavery when he gets his master’s pair of socks(any clothing I guess)..