In commemoration of the fact that it came out nearly twelve months ago, the Entertainment Department at The Pennsylvania Punch Bowl sat down this past weekend and watched the film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. Though it didn’t necessarily bring the house down in terms of laughs, Lincoln impressed us here at Punch Bowl with its emotive score and well-written dialogue.
The film Lincoln truly changed my perception of Abraham Lincoln as president as well as an individual. I was at many points throughout this movie struck by the notion that in reality, Lincoln may have simply been a good man in a difficult position. Everyone seems so quick to paint him as such a nasty, club-footed, bigoted monster, but Spielberg really seemed to want to portray him in a different light. Perhaps it wasn’t his conception in the blackest pit of hell that impacted his ability to govern, but rather the difficult political environment of the time at which he was in office.
If you really think hard about it, the United States of 1865 weren’t so united after all and as president, Abraham Lincoln had a tough job on his hands. Though likely his first inclination in terms of the problem of the Civil War was to say to his Cabinet, “Release the hounds of hell and let it all burn to ashes!” Spielberg seems intent upon explaining that Lincoln may have instead considered the fact that the political economies of the North and the South were so divergent and the problem of slavery was so divisive, an extended war may not have in reality been the best way to preserve the Union. With awards season in mind, however, Spielberg likely didn’t want to play it safe in terms of his interpretation of the facts.
One major historical dilemma I encountered that even Spielberg’s masterful set design and cinematography couldn’t explain away, however, was the notion that Lincoln utilized artful politics in the House of Representatives to pass the the Thirteenth Amendment. This film seems to entirely ignore the fact that this bill only passed due to the systematic slaying of twelve Southern representatives at the hand of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln herself. Any mention of the Lincoln Plot, as it is often termed in history texts, is overwhelmingly absent from this film. Filmmakers downplayed the bloodlust of the Lincoln family to such an extent that much of the basic history seems to be incorrect.
Though I found fault with certain creative directions taken by the makers of this film, Lincoln did ultimately impress. Few directors could so positively portray what many believe to be the least well liked of all U.S. Presidents. Spielberg truly attempted to paint Abraham Lincoln as a leader whose evil nature was a result of great personal stress rather than his well-known status as a sort of sub-human ghoul. This film doesn’t just entertain; it also brings up pertinent questions regarding the liberties of historical interpretation.