Here there be dragons.
So wrote the old cartographers on their parchment maps, sketching fantastical beasts with fins and fangs. They were fearsome and horrible, these monsters, able to swallow ships and devour cities.
Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, a voracious reader, ran across one of those maps one day—a map made when the world’s worst dangers lurked in its blank spaces. Maybe he smiled. Maybe he thought of how much better it would be were these the real monsters—so horrible and so beautiful and so far away. How preferable they’d be to the ones that stalk our streets and devour our families and consume our nation’s very soul.
The year is 1865, and Mr. Lincoln has had his fill of dragons.
One is named War—a gluttonous beast that has fed on the country for four sickening years. Hundreds of thousands have died at its feet, lost in its bloody maw. America’s forests and fields are covered in corpses. The streets are alive with the cry of mothers and children, mourning the beloved dead.
Another is called Slavery, a demon that’s torn at the country since its inception and before—mocking its hypocrisy, decrying the duplicity of its declaration that “All men are created equal” when so many live in chains.
Now, finally, Lincoln feels the time is right to slay a monster or two. The rebellious South is exhausted and ready to plead for peace. Slavery may, with a little luck, be wiped out through an act of Congress—the 13th Amendment.
But there’s a catch: End the war, and the Confederate South will insist on preserving slavery. Free the slaves, and the South will have no incentive to make peace.
“It’s either the Amendment or this Confederate peace,” William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, tells him. “You cannot have both.”
We know how this story ends. We read it in the Constitution, hear it in the ringing words of civil rights advocates, see it engraved on the tombs of soldiers and sewn to a field of blue on a flag that now boasts a full 50 stars.
Lincoln is the story of monsters, the man who slew them, and the price he paid to do so.
Lincoln led the country through the bloodiest conflict in its history and, while so doing, reversed a horrific evil that had plagued it from its inception. And while Daniel Day-Lewis’ layered portrayal of the United States’ 16th president informs us that Lincoln was a more complex character than we sometimes want to believe, we also observe a host of reasons why Lincoln was so successful then and so revered now.
We first see Lincoln visiting his troops, listening patiently as soldiers recite his own Gettysburg Address. Indeed, the film makes a point of stressing Lincoln’s almost boundless patience—enduring the petty requests of constituents with a kindly smile, chuckling off his cabinet’s combustibility, absorbing the occasional sideswipe from his political friends and foes with grace, even when he has to force it. His style is not to dazzle with brilliance, but to guide and cajole; he spins yarns to illustrate his point, disarming his opponents with self-deprecating humor.
Some consider Lincoln’s patience and down-home style to be a political liability, and we hear how Lincoln can seem to dawdle on almost every decision that needs to be made. Every decision except one: the 13th Amendment, which Lincoln wants to speed through a lame-duck session of Congress in less than a month. In his rush to pass the thing, he utilizes every trick in his arsenal to get the work done. (More about those “tricks” later.)
Amazingly, as he drives toward his goal, Lincoln never loses sight of his family. He dotes on his little boy, Tad, and during the House of Representative’s critical Amendment vote, the president is not pacing in his office. He is with his son. He, with very few exceptions, does his very best to help his wife Mary, who’s been driven practically insane by their boy Willie’s death two years earlier. He encourages her to stay strong—put on a brave face for his sake and for the nation’s. He struggles with whether to let his oldest boy, Robert, join the military or keep him safe at home for Mary’s sake. (Lincoln eventually allows it, knowing Robert would be ashamed for the rest of his life if he didn’t serve.)
Lincoln shows grace, pardoning a 16-year-old soldier for an act of cowardice. He shows courage, making horrifically difficult decisions that risk alienating his friends, his supporters and even his wife.
America during the Civil War was a deeply religious country. And everyone, it seems, tried to enlist God to their side.
“Congress must never declare equal those whom God created unequal!” thunders New York Representative Fernando Wood. Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful congressional abolitionist, retorts that such talk insults God. When an African-American servant tells Lincoln she’s sure the Amendment will pass—that God will see to it—Lincoln quips, “I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.”
A worried father named Preston Blair pleads with Lincoln to open the door to peace “in the name of gentle Christ.” African-Americans raise or fold their hands in thanksgiving when the Amendment passes. We see and hear people asking for God’s blessing or guidance.
Lincoln talks about his longing to visit the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of David and Solomon. Mary chides Abe and herself for not being necessarily fit to take such a spiritual pilgrimage, seeing as how they’re taking a buggy ride on Good Friday. Lincoln tells a humorous story about a parrot who was taught to say, “Today’s the day the world shall end, as the Scripture has foretold.” The punch line? The owner eventually shot the parrot, thus “confirming” the Scripture.
We hear hints that Mary tried to commune with Willie after he died. (In real life, Mary was fascinated by an unmoored spirituality in vogue at the time and held séances in Willie’s room.) She half-jokingly refers to herself as a soothsayer.
We see Mary in a state of partial undress, wearing her undergarments. Stevens shares a non-marital bed with his African-American housekeeper. (The vibe is that of an old married couple—companionable, not passionate.)
The film opens on a battle scene; people are stabbed with bayonets, beaten and pushed deep into the mud to drown. The sequence isn’t bloody, but it vividly conveys the horrors of war. Toward the end of the war, Lincoln visits a battlefield strewn with corpses. One mangled body has its torso splayed open, devoid of organs. We see a city burning.
When Lincoln visits wounded war vets, his son Robert follows orderlies pushing a cart that’s dribbling blood along the way. The conveyance stops at a huge pit filled with human limbs, and the orderlies unveil the cart’s contents—newly amputated legs and arms. They dump the contents in the pit as people begin to fill in the hole with dirt.
When Robert and his father get into an argument, Lincoln slaps him across the face.
Lincoln is shown on his deathbed, a bloodstained pillow beneath his head.
One f-word. Four or five s-words. Bigots hurl derogatory terms for African-Americans several times, including the n-word. We hear “b‑‑ch,” “p‑‑‑,” “h‑‑‑” and “bloody.” God’s name is combined with “d‑‑n” more than a dozen times. Jesus’ name is abused once.
Several characters are shown drinking (wine, beer and other presumably alcoholic beverages) and smoking (mostly cigars). Preston Blair’s wife instructs a servant to get him drunk during a long journey so he’ll be able to sleep. Lobbyists seem inebriated in a scene or two.
Remember those “tricks” Lincoln uses to push his Amendment through Congress? Well, politics can be a dirty business, and not even our most revered president escapes the muck here. From the beginning, Lincoln admits that the Emancipation Proclamation (enacted two years earlier) required some serious contortions to legally justify it. Amendment 13 will clear up any potential illegality … but to get it passed he has Seward hire some underhanded “lobbyists” to help garner the votes needed. These lobbyists are forbidden from using money to outright bribe anyone, but they’re free to offer jobs in exchange for “yes” votes.
When that’s not enough, Lincoln resorts to other means. He (in a roundabout way) tells one congressman that he’ll have him booted out of Congress unless he votes “yes.” He perpetually sidesteps rumors that he’s entertaining peace offers from the Confederacy—but in fact he is.
On the morning of the vote, the opposition demands the president respond to rumors that there’s a Confederate delegation in town. Lincoln says there is no delegation in Washington, D.C., “as far as I know.” It’s true, but only semantically so: He stalled the delegation outside town. When one principled adjunct refuses to deliver that message to Congress, Lincoln gently takes the missive out of his hands and gives it to a less scrupulous messenger.
Lincoln tells an off-color story involving a British bathroom and a picture of George Washington. He threatens to send Mary to the madhouse.
History has frozen Lincoln into something like the American conscience: kindly, principled, winsome, idealistic. And he was, indeed, all of those things.
But through that lens we lose sight of how politically savvy and shrewd he was. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is indeed a dramatization, but the sorts of steps we see Lincoln take here are not fiction—not according to historians. And portions of the screenplay are based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Lincoln didn’t rise above the game: He played it with the best of them. And when Thaddeus Stevens, both his ally and critic, chastises him for his seeming lack of a moral compass���his willingness to compromise, his occasional obfuscations—Lincoln rebuts him, naturally, with a story. He relates how as a backwoodsmen, he learned it was sometimes necessary to deviate from true north in order to evade a swamp or gorge. If you plow straight on toward your goal regardless of obstacles that might terminate your trip forever, Lincoln asks, “What’s the use of knowing true north?”
Lincoln, then, like the country he led, was both an idealist and a pragmatist. Were his actions admirable? Appalling? Perhaps a bit of both. And just as Lincoln got his own hands muddy to pass that invaluable 13th Amendment, his onscreen character feels a bit muddy to those of us used to seeing him as a gleaming marble statue.
A postscript: Did Abraham Lincoln really spout the s-word? Did his colleagues use the f-word? This film places those foul words (and others) into the mouths of its historical characters, but James McPherson, a Lincoln biographer and consultant on the movie, says, “The profanity actually bothered me, especially Lincoln’s use of it. It struck me as completely unlikely—a modern injection into Lincoln’s rhetoric.” The Hollywood Reporter reports that McPherson says he emailed his objections to the screenwriter after reading an early draft, “but I see that that language made it in the movie anyhow.” David Barton, who has appeared as a history expert on Fox News, CNN and other outlets, furthers McPherson’s point by saying, “There are records of [Lincoln] confronting military generals if he heard about them cursing. Furthermore, the f-word used by [W.N.] Bilbo was virtually nonexistent in that day and it definitely would not have been used around Lincoln. If Lincoln had heard it, it is certain that he would instantly have delivered a severe rebuke.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.