Skeptic Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)


Movie fans are no doubt aware that the Academy Award nominations came out today (Thursday the 10th) Leading the pack in total number of nominations with twelve is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” including ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis’ and ‘Best Director.’

I’ve seen it. It was an impressive film, with high quality acting and gripping political drama.

The nominations give me an excuse to provide another review for our readers here at Skeptic North! What might be relevant for skeptics with regards to the film “Lincoln”?  Was it historically accurate? Or was Mr. Spielberg spinning tall tales of the myth of Lincoln?


Full disclosure, I am out of date when it comes to American civil war history. There was a time when I knew the timeline of the civil war, emancipation, and reconstruction by heart, but that was years ago. However in taking a quick look around at what other historians are saying, what I myself remember, I’d like to synthesize that collection of knowledge for our readers who might be wondering.

First things first, normally I’d always do my best to prevent spoilers from getting out, but honestly, if I need to protect you from learning how this movie ends….we have a bigger problem than historical inaccuracies in the movie.

But let’s start with my overall verdict. History buffs should rest easy. This is an entertaining and reasonably accurate portrayal of Lincoln and the ordeal of passing the 13th amendment. Potential problems, like portraying Lincoln like some kind of enlightened pious saint are avoided in this film. Politically astute, (scheming some might argue) this Lincoln is more a political genius than enlightened. There’s an element of megalomania in Daniel Day Lewis’s performance that sort of fits the historic reality.

The film is (loosely) based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The primary focus in on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment early in his second term before the civil war ends. His concern in the film is that if the war ends, the emancipation proclamation will be rescinded. The central drama of the film is that the South has sent peace negotiators which would threaten Lincoln’s support in congress to get the amendment passed.

Let’s consider a few things that might rankle historians. Aside from the typical historic bloopers that are always present in films like this (at one point Lincoln using a crank to raise the flag, he should have used ropes) … There is a lot of invented dialogue in the film. Lincoln says a few progressive lines that there is no record of him ever saying (or really any reason to believe he would say) there’s no mention whatsoever of Lincoln’s disastrous vice president and racist drunk Andrew Johnson. The 13th amendment is also presented as Lincoln’s invention, this of course is incorrect. the Thirteenth Amendment when it was proposed in 1864—was from the Women’s National Loyal League, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (At the time Lincoln did not support it.)

Additionally, what historians have known for some time is that slavery was being defeated by former slaves. As General Sherman carved a bloody path through the South, liberated slaves were seizing plantations, dividing land, working for themselves and building communities. Politicians might have been labouring to pass laws in the halls of power, but irrespective of what they came up with, self-freed slaves were already taking control of their own destinies.

And of course, former slaves like Frederick Douglass and others were lobbying and appealing for freedom long before the 13th amendment. The film’s biggest omission in my opinion is not including Douglass.

In fact, what’s irritating is that in a movie about emancipation there are only three or four speaking roles for black characters. There’s a couple ways to interpret this, one is that Spielberg crafted a film for Lincoln fans to watch and feel good about themselves and he didn’t think to mention (or perhaps was ignorant of) the more nuanced history of emancipation and the role black people played in it. Another way is that Spielberg was crafting a film about the political powerbrokers of emancipation and considered that narrative to be his primary focus for the film. The latter is probably the more charitable interpretation than the former.

Perhaps as a way of acknowledging this, there is a scene early in the film where Lincoln is greeting some Union troops, two black soldiers and two white soldiers approach him. One of the black soldiers is very complimentary and quotes lines to Lincoln from the Gettysburg Address (I’ll come back to that in a moment) however the other black soldier remarks to Lincoln some of the inequalities black soldiers have to face compared to their white counterparts. A scene like this goes a long way to remind enlightened movie goers that despite Lincoln’s good graces, the North and Union army were still racist and discriminatory.

Another history blooper occurs in this scene. Two of the soldiers quote lines from the Gettysburg Address, this is quite a stretch. The idea that soldiers or civilians would have memorized lines from the Gettysburg Address is very dubious. The fame of the speech, actually didn’t develop until after Lincoln’s death and it wasn’t until the 20th century that it became well known amongst history books and such.

Additionally, the premise for Lincoln’s hurry to pass the 13th amendment is the “threat” of peace breaking out, has been criticized as unrealistic in the sense that the war ending in early 1865 was historically inaccurate. (The war finally ended in April of 1865) I personally think that’s a debateable point.  However the drama in the film about Southern diplomats visiting Washington before the vote on the 13th (which would have undermined the vote) was never a real issue as portrayed in the film.

Arguably, this is a surprisingly accurate film with a few cringe moments for history buffs. Of course, even considering everything I pointed out, “Lincoln” is still light years ahead of the History Channel or “Gladiator” in terms of historic accuracy. It’s also a hell of a better movie/entertainment.

I recommend it.

2 Responses to “Skeptic Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)”

  1. David Grant says:

    I agree it is a very good film, although I am not sure that it is the best film of 2012(I liked Argo a lot more). I was surprised given the way Spielberg is often too sentimental in covering serious material. I still prefer Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer, but I think that this my expectations were exceeded. I think if there were vampires alive in his day, Honest Abe would do some serious ass-whoopin!!!!!

  2. Marc says:

    I am a big Civil War buff. I live in Virginia and have to travel a ton between DC and Petersburg for work, so I frequently have opportunities to visit the various national battlefields. Additionally I have a pretty voracious appetite for Civil War histories (including “Team of Rivals,” which is riveting). So while I agree completely with you on Frederick Douglass not being involved in the film, I do have a few areas where I don’t agree with your interpretation.

    First, on Douglass. This is a travesty, as Lincoln is known to have sought out Douglass a number of times to get his feel for how black Americans were feeling on issues and to discuss why he took positions that sometimes made him seem far less progressive than he was.

    Now on to the nit-picking (I hope I’m not being too hard here–not trying to be, just passionate about the history):

    1) There was probably no mention of Andrew Johnson because he wasn’t Vice President yet. Back in those days, the presidential terms started in March, not January. The VP at the time was Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, and Johnson was still in Tennessee ratifying the new state constitution (passed in February) during the actions of the film (excluding of course the inauguration and the assassination).

    2) I don’t think the premise that Lincoln had to rush to pass the 13th Amendment so as to avoid the war ending too early is really debatable at all. Once Wilmington, NC, had fallen to the Union, desertion by Confederate troops was high in large part because that port city was the last open port to get around the Union blockade. The Confederates were essentially being starved into surrender as much as they were being bombarded into it. Additionally, the Army of Virginia under Lee was pretty much the only resistance left, and they were entrenched around Petersburg, VA, at that time, outnumbered somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1. This is one of the reasons why Davis agreed to send peace negotiators in the first place. If the war had ended, what Lincoln feared was that the Emancipation Proclamation would no longer be valid (it only applied to belligerent states) and thus the War Democrats and moderate Republicans, who weren’t necessarily so keen on ending Slavery as defeating the South) wouldn’t go along. Lincoln would be left with no Emancipation Proclamation and no momentum in Congress, even though the Republicans had greatly increased their seats in the House in the 1864 elections.

    3) Where do you get your information that the 13th Amendment was the creation of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? I have never heard this claim made before so strongly. First, it wasn’t the first proposed amendment to eliminate slavery. The first was submitted in 1839 by John Quincy Adams. Secondly, bills have to be submitted by Congressmen, and as women didn’t have the vote there were no female members of Congress. The suffragettes certainly played a huge role in ending slavery as they were active abolitionists. But if we’re going to criticize that Lincoln didn’t create the bill that became the amendment then we equally cannot credit non-Congressmen. All played their role, and Lincoln probably most importantly, in driving the passage.

    4) On the point of Lincoln’s view on the 13th Amendment, I disagree with your discussion of Lincoln being against it. Lincoln was an excellent read of political winds and extremely pragmatic. This led to a popular view that he was slow to support causes of the more radical Republicans. In fact, most current thought (Kearns Godwin is a leader of this school) seems to be that Lincoln was always extremely anti-Slavery, was in favor of the freeing of the slaves far earlier than even the Emancipation Proclamation), but also understood that for pragmatic reasons things sometimes could not be rushed. This is not really a statement that Lincoln wasn’t in favor of the 13th Amendment in 1864, but more a statement that prior to the Election Lincoln could not have supported such a thing and have expected the border states to support him (and to put them in a position to leave the Union if Lincoln won re-election). I guess my objection here is that saying he didn’t support the Amendment in 1864 oversimplifies things. Once the landslide 1864 election was finalized, Lincoln knew he had the opportunity and (as depicted in the film) acted aggressively to push the Amendment through. It seems clear that if the same election results had occurred in March of 1864 as in November, it is highly likely that Lincoln would have been pushing the 13th Amendment in 1864 instead of (mostly) January 1865.

    5) Finally, on the memorization of the Gettysburg Address, it is possible. The troops represented the Massachusetts 54th, an all-black regiment. Papers in the North, including the Springfield Republican (and the New York Times) reprinted the speech soon after it was given so it was widely distributed. Additionally, much political information was disseminated at that time through black churches, and it was very likely that this speech (once it was disseminated) was read and re-read in those churches. Additionally, Douglass’ son Frederick Jr. was serving in the Mass 54th at that time, and if anyone was going to have that speech memorized and be willing to pass on the knowledge to the troops, it was him. As such, although it’s not necessarily likely this specific encounter happened, it isn’t so impossible as you make it seem.

    I completely agree this was a very entertaining movie and very well done. I just think it was maybe closer to historical truth than you’re giving it credit for here.


  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.