In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.
I found out about the movie Lincoln surprisingly recently. I honestly had not heard that this movie was being made until about two months ago, but once I found out about it I wanted to go see it. I love watching movies based on historical events, though I will admit that I haven’t seen as many of these movies as I would like. My first attempt to see the movie ended when I arrived at the theatre to find that it was sold out for four straight shows. That in itself sold me on the popularity of the movie even before seeing any box office figures. I had resigned myself to waiting several weeks to see Lincoln when I received a text message from theatre friend gushing about the technical aspects of the movie and encouraging me to go and see it – I went the next day.
Before getting into a more historical discussion of the movie, I need to take a moment to comment on the technical aspects. I was amazed by the scenery, costumes, and the soundtrack. I thought that they were very well done and brought me into the world of the movie.
Now onto a more historical discussion, I was impressed by the attempt to show the complexity behind the decision to push for emancipation, particularly the discussion of the legality of the emancipation proclamation. In the movie, Lincoln discusses with his cabinet his reservations about whether he actually had the power to free the slaves and what exactly having war power means. This scene shows Lincoln’s internal dilemma about the emancipation proclamation. This kind of debate is not something that the average person experiences in their history class in high school. It brings more humanity to Lincoln and I believe inspires curiosity to learn more about these events..
Another aspect of the movie that I was happy about was the focus on different congressmen and the reasoning behind why they voted different ways. I think that through this, the movie showed the variety of viewpoints throughout the county. It also served to show the racism that was prevalent at the time. Finally, I feel that the focus on several congressmen serves to challenge the notion that freeing of the slaves was accomplished by Lincoln alone. The attention to multiple viewpoints added depth of the movie.
While the movie Lincoln had more viewpoints than the average person has heard in school, there were cases in this movie where historical complexity was lost in the creation of a linear narrative with an ending. Perhaps it is because of my background in theatre, but I tend to be more forgiving about such inaccuracies than some of my friends who are also involved in history. I acknowledge that the movie did sacrifice some complexity toward the end after the signing of the Thirteenth Amendment. The scene of celebration afterward ignores the years of struggle for equality following the signing of the declaration. This topic is in fact not discussed beyond the denial of congress to acknowledge any equality beyond equality before the law. There is a definite sense of optimism at the end of the movie that denies years of struggle, but I understand that this was done in order to end an already two and a half hour long movie in a way that would satisfy a movie audience.
This is a movie that I believe will lead to more interest in reading about slavery and emancipation and will lead a larger public understanding that there was more to the story than “Lincoln freed the slaves.” For, this reason alone I believe that Lincoln is worth watching and recommending to friends. Add to that the great scenery, costumes, and soundtrack and I consider it a great movie.