Lincoln – A cinematic triumph and true biography, rather than hagiography

I was born in 1949 and grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Abraham Lincoln of my high school years was the mythic, heroic figure described in the books of Carl Sandburg and the movie his works inspired, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, as portrayed by the actor, Raymond Massey.

Movies and books about historical figures written prior to the late 1960s tended to be works of hagiography – the study of saints – rather than factual historical biography.  American authors, film producers, directors, and screen writers in those times tended to portray historic figures as supremely capable saints without moral or ethical flaws.

For my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate to attend Northwestern University, which had then and continues to have one of the finest history departments in the nation.  My mentor was the late Richard W. Leopold, who was considered to be at that time the nation’s leading historian of American foreign policy.

Inspired by Professor Leopold, I embraced the study of history as a true passion of the intellect and soul.  History is the ultimate guide to the issues of the present, and in the words of the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

At Northwestern, I learned about a much different Abraham Lincoln than the mythic figure portrayed by Carl Sandberg and Raymond Massey.  My new Lincoln was the individual described in the works of the late David Herbert Donald, who unquestionably remains the leading Lincoln authority in American history.  His book, Lincoln Reconsidered, published in1947 and updated in 1961was the core text for Lincoln studies of my college years.  Later, Donald wrote Lincoln, published in 1995, which, in my view, will always be the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln described by David Herbert Donald was a great leader who was often beset by severe personal and political troubles.  He was not a perfect human being.  Yet his greatness was to be found in his ability to surmount these obstacles to become America’s finest president.  He was not a saint-like figure and held many of the prejudices of his era against African –Americans.  Yet Lincoln was basically a moral and ethical man who found slavery to be abhorrent.  His superb political acumen enabled him to lead the Union to victory in the Civil War and lay the foundation for the elimination of slavery.

Given my lifelong interest in Abraham Lincoln, it was natural and understandable that I would be most eager to see the DreamWorks movie, Lincoln, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg’s production was based in part upon Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  I had the good fortune to meet Doris in 2000, and I enjoyed thoroughly Team of Rivals.  It, too, was an outstanding and authoritative historical work, as was her excellent book No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. 

When it comes to Abraham Lincoln, however, the works of David Herbert Donald remain the gold standard against which all other works regarding Lincoln must be judged.  Accordingly, prior to seeing the movie during the week of its American premiere, I determined to utilize the works of Donald in assessing the historical authenticity of Spielberg’s Lincoln.

I am pleased to report that on the whole, Spielberg’s Lincoln is an extraordinary work of historical biography, rather than hagiography.  The movie masterfully recounts how Lincoln’s remarkable sense of realpolitik enabled him to shepherd the passage in the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which emancipated the African-American slaves and abolished slavery forevermore.  Simultaneously, Lincoln was bringing the Civil War to a successful conclusion, which, as the movie illustrates, in many respects made the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment all the more remarkable.

The only debatable point regarding the movie’s adherence to history is in the matter of the means used to obtain the votes of members of the House of Representatives for the Thirteenth Amendment.

In the movie, members of Lincoln’s staff utilized promises of jobs and other economic benefits to secure support for the Amendment’s passage from recalcitrant and/or wavering House members, all with the apparent knowledge of the President.  According to David Herbert Donald, however, “If Lincoln used other means of persuading congressmen to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, his actions were not recorded.  Conclusions about the President’s role rested on gossip and later recollections like those of (abolitionist Pennsylvania Congressman) Thaddeus Stevens, who remarked, ‘The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.’ ”

This, however, was the only aspect of the movie that could be questioned for accuracy in terms of compliance with the David Herbert Donald works.  If I were to grade this movie in terms of historical authenticity, I would definitely give it an “A”.

This movie is a cinematic triumph, both in terms of the screenplay of Tony Kushner and the acting.  Indeed, it is the acting that makes this movie a cinematic tour de force.  There are three individuals who merit Oscars for their acting in this movie:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones.

It must be said that Daniel Day-Lewis both looks and speaks like Abraham Lincoln, as David Herbert Donald described him.  Let me put it this way – Daniel Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln.  If Daniel Day-Lewis does not receive the Oscar for Best Actor, I will regard it as a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln magnificently.  She had to gain considerable weight for the filming in order to resemble Lincoln’s First Lady.  Ms. Field, however, is an outstanding actress and a true artist.  She would be a worthy recipient for the Oscar for Best Actress.

Tommy Lee Jones has long been one of my favorite actors.  His memorable portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens should win him his second Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

I don’t know if Lincoln will win the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year.  The film version of Les Miz is being released on December 25, and audiences who have attended the screenings of this new movie have likewise given it rave reviews.

I confess, however, that I will be rooting for Lincoln to win the Best Picture Oscar.  My all-time favorite fictional movie is The Godfather, Parts 1, 2, and 3, followed closely behind by Casablanca.  My all-time favorite nonfiction movie will henceforth be Lincoln. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University. 





  Lincoln – A cinematic triumph and true biography, rather than hagiography