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Film Review: Lincoln

This past Wednesday I was able to catch up with a really good friend from undergrad. We had first met in a class that covered the Civil War and then took a class that focused on assassinations in American history. Because of these classes we both developed a strong interest in the Civil War era (my undergrad thesis even focuses on Boston’s Civil War draft riot). While my research interests no longer cover this period I still have an affinity for all things Lincoln and my friend and I decided that seeing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln would be a good way to catch up with each other.

Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, Team of Rivals, which I must admit I have not read. Regardless, the movie covers the last years of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in which he and his party were struggling to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed through the House of Representatives. The House was pretty well divided on the issue to abolish slavery with this amendment and the movie portrays the president and his cabinet working to get enough votes to pass the amendment.

The film has a star-filled cast which includes Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, amongst many others. Daniel Day-Lewis presents a very convincing Lincoln; his mannerisms throughout the film portray a president tired by war and greatly affected by his emotions (I wouldn’t be surprised in Day-Lewis won an award for this role).[1] Sally Field plays a dramatic Mary Todd Lincoln who has been emotionally tried by the death of their third son, Edward Lincoln. Again, this was another strong performance in this film. While these two roles were well cast I am a little confused as to way Joseph Gordon-Levitt took on the role that he did. Robert Todd Lincoln was barely in the film and I found it distracting that such a solid actor took such a minor role.

The film ends with the assassination and the death of Lincoln. The assassination itself is not shown in the film, let alone the plot to murder several others in the cabinet, and the president’s death appeared rushed. Once Lincoln is pronounced dead the infamous “Now he belongs to the ages” is spoken, but it is unclear as to who is speaking (the quote is actually attributed to Edwin Stanton). This film could have ended sooner than it had with Lincoln walking out of the White House to attend the theater; I think most everyone knows what happens next. What do I know though? I’m not in the movie industry.

All in all I would say this movie is a must see, whether you like Lincoln, the Civil War, American history, or just good movies.

Ian Jesse, MA Student

CNN Interview with Eric Foner

In the interview above, historian Eric Foner critiques the historical adequacy of Lincoln. Have you seen Lincoln or do you plan to see the film? What is your historical review?

Ian Jesse, “Film Review: Lincoln,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), November 27, 2012,

[1] For more about Lincoln’s emotional trials see Lincoln’s Melancholy and The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

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