Category Archives: Lincoln

Justifying the “Lies” in Lincoln

When Lincoln first came out, critics, trivial pursuit fanatics, and history buffs flocked to theaters, legal pads in hand, ready to call out all the lies and dramatizations of the movie. But as we discussed in class, Spielberg made a conscious decision to use fiction to create truth. Many of the “lies” in Lincoln were purposeful choices to get at greater themes and metaphors, using the story as an allegory for the historical legend that has become ingrained in our national memory. In this post, I will take a look at some of Spielberg’s “lies” and consider why he chose to include them.

  1. The black and white soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address: It is inconceivable that any soldier, Union or Confederate, black or white, could have memorized this speech, however ingrained on modern public memory. Spielberg put this in the movie to demonstrate Lincoln’s desire to unite the country, setting the plot up for the Thirteenth Amendment. It also demonstrated the commitment of both black and white soldiers to fight together for the birth of a new nation, one without slavery.
  2. Mary Todd watching the passage of the amendment from the House Gallery: This could never have happened in 1865. The First Lady, much less any woman, had no place in this sacred political chamber. So why put this scene in the movie? Spielberg frequently used the portrayal of Lincoln’s unhappy, torn-apart family as a greater metaphor for the unhappy country torn apart by the civil war. A crucial plot point was the necessity of the passage of the thirteenth amendment before completing any peace talks with the Confederacy. Thus, the thirteenth amendment would start the healing process for the nation, and having Mary Todd there signified the beginning of the healing process for Lincoln’s family. Furthermore, keeping Mary Todd in the House Gallery while her husband stayed at home emphasized how intertwined the family’s public and private life had become.
  3. Lincoln’s cabinet advising him against the Thirteenth Amendment: By 1865, Lincoln had swapped out his most unruly cabinet members for loyal men dedicated to serving the president. Those remaining from the original cabinet — Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles — were all fiercely loyal to Lincoln. Drama aside, Spielberg probably put the debates between the cabinet and the president in the movie to show that Lincoln made a risky decision when he chose to back the Thirteenth Amendment in his re-election campaign. The cabinet from the movie was thus able to voice all of the concerns and counterarguments of the time, demonstrating the roadblocks that the amendment faced and starting the difficult journey to its passage.
  4. Roll call by state for the Thirteenth Amendment: Roll call is and was alphabetical. This was merely a dramatic device since the audience can easily understand that southern states had Democratic representatives. Also the amendment wasn’t called the Thirteenth Amendment, but again, this was solely to help the audience.

Equally interesting, here are three “facts” from the movie that were true in 1865:

  1. Thaddeus Steven’s “marriage” to his housekeeper: This was Washington’s worst-kept secret.
  2. Lincoln made corrupt bargains to pass the 13th amendment: Also true, though Lincoln was not as directly involved as in the movie. He did give Steward broad instructions to generate votes, who in turn hired a group of New York lobbyists to do the dirty work.
  3. Lincoln told Congressman James Alley, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” This is perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in the movies, and one of the few times when Day Lewis becomes almost terrifying. Also, it actually happened, though Lincoln probably didn’t shout the words.



2 Truths and a Lie?

Looking back on it, I have done more ice breakers in my college career so far than I have ever planned on doing my entire life. (*Disclaimer: I am only a sophomore so inevitably there will be many more..) That being said, I am basically a professional ice breaker. I did have one ‘minor’ slip up during 2 truths and a lie at my NSO here at Penn State. So, as the game goes everyone goes in a circle saying 2 truths and a lie about themselves and the other people try to guess which one is the lie. It is a great way to learn some fun facts about people you’re forced to socialize with. So my turn came and I proudly stated my 3 things. I soon found myself staring at a group of faces that clearly had no idea which one was the lie. Well, funny story…. I forgot to tell a lie. I told 3 truths and even fooled myself with that one..

Anyways, now that everyone is clear on how to play the game, let’s talk Lincoln. Many critics see this movie as having a lot of historical inaccuracy and not as much accuracy. I’m going to present three different BIG historical points that this film focuses on, not saying whether or not the point is historically accurate or not. At the end, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which two are the truths and what situation from the film is, in fact, a lie. Good luck!

#1 Lincoln’s face was not printed on any sort of money until after he died. Despite the fact that a character in the film argues that he couldn’t bribe undecided men to vote yes on the 13th amendment because of all of the currency already in circulation with president Lincoln’s face on them, he didn’t actually appear on money until 1869.

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#2 Lincoln’s position as president gave him the power to make legislative decisions which became the deciding factors in the abolition of slavery. These decisions were so important that nothing else effected the passing of the 13th amendment. The war was just a minor detail in this quest for freedom.

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#3 Soldiers much like those in the opening scene would frequently approach president Lincoln. Even though he was Commander-in-Chief, both soldiers that were black and white would casually talk to Lincoln about topics such as his famous Gettysburg Address. This speech was, in fact, popular before Lincoln died.

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So, what do you think? What’s true and what is not? …Maybe I tricked you once again!

The Modern Epic Western

It’s no secret that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad takes much of its inspiration from the Western genre, and specifically Clint Eastwood.  In an interview, Gilligan will readily tell you that Eastwood is his long-time industry hero. But Walter White, much like William Munny, is no classic hero of the west – he is a highly flawed character, a criminal who does not always draw the sympathies of the show’s audience.  In fact, Breaking Bad mirrors many of the traits of Unforgiven that make it a reimagining of the classic Western drama.

(Warning: mild Breaking Bad spoilers ahead!)

“I did it for the family.”


William Munny first rejects the Schofield Kid’s entreaty to kill, claiming that he has made a new life for himself as a farmer and a father.  But soon after, we see Munny wistfully itching for the dark glamour of his past.  Despite his spoken protests to the Kid, Munny is a failing hog farmer- his animals are dying and his home is dilapidated.  So he inevitably returns, haltingly at first, to his gun and his horse.

Walter White’s path to meth-making follows similar tropes.  Previously a brilliant chemist responsible for the rise of an incredibly successful company, he enters the series as a mediocre high school chemistry teacher mocked by his students.  He works two terrible jobs- he’s even forced to dry a student’s car while taking ridicule.  So ultimately, White’s rise as Heisenberg (a mythical identity similar to Munny’s) is not for the benefit of his family.  As he finally relates to his wife, Skylar: “I did it for me”.

“It don’t seem real…”

schofield jesse

The Schofield Kid and Jesse Pinkman: William Munny and Walter White’s respective boyish and naive partners-in-crime.  Both arrive boastfully to the drama, but when fronted with the moral crisis of taking a human life (or losing a loved one to the fray), both buckle.  After the Kid kills a man, he is reduced to tearfully drinking whiskey; when Munny discovers his best friend Ned has died, after having also endured the trauma of watching a man die, he is moved to action.  In Walter White, we also see some of the moral decrepitude alluded to in Munny’s past.  He is willing to let Jesse’s girlfriend die, and readily engineers multiple deaths without much open show of remorse.  By contrast, Jesse is often reduced to tears and spends much of his time drinking or doing drugs to rid himself of pain.

The final bloodbath


When viewing the final, gruesome scene of Unforgiven, I was immediately reminded of the final scene of Breaking Bad.  Both scenes mirror each other in their dark bloodiness, engineered brilliantly and vengefully by our anti-heroes.  Here one difference emerges: while William Munny rides off into the night after the damage has been done, Walter White stumbles bleeding into a chemistry lab.  He sees his reflection in the pristine, sterile equipment- a final self-reckoning- and he dies.


The Problem of “Rewriting” History

While re-watching Lincoln in class the other day, I kept thinking about the historical inaccuracies in the film.  I understand that the film needed to change things in order to have mass appeal but I still feel like the rewriting of history causes many problems. First, most people don’t know a lot about history and gain a lot of their knowledge of it from popular media.  Through films, such as Lincoln, and various popular television shows people think they are learning the truth about history.  However, much that is shown is either dramatized or simply created to express the director’s vision.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 08: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis (L) and director/producer Steven Spielberg arrive at the "Lincoln" premiere during AFI Fest 2012 presented by Audi at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on November 8, 2012 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images For AFI)

HOLLYWOOD, CA – NOVEMBER 08: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis (L) and director/producer Steven Spielberg arrive at the “Lincoln” premiere during AFI Fest 2012 presented by Audi at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on November 8, 2012 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images For AFI)

This is an issue though, for Steven Spielberg’s version of history is not accurate and now the general public believes it to be true.  Historical accuracies are overlooked for dramatic appeals.  Even when the things that do occur in the film actually happened, such as Lincoln saying ““I am president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and I expect to you procure those votes.”, the context, manner in which it was spoken, facial expressions cannot be historically known.  Thus the acting is also used to interpret history in a certain way.

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The film also changes facts in order to better fit its message.  For instance, the race to the 13th Amendment was not portrayed accurately at all.  The film went even so far to change the voting record in the film, with it showing that Connecticut representatives voting against the Amendment, when in actuality all four congressional representatives had voted in favor of the amendment.  The fact that something as simple as this was changed for the film unsettles me because it shows the liberty that was used in choosing details.

lincoln 3 Lincoln from “Birth of a Nation”

There is some value in viewing historical films such as Lincoln because it allows the greater masses to gain some sort of historical knowledge, as there is some truths in the film.  I think the thing that bothers me the most about historical films, is that it allows history to be portrayed by those making the film, not as it occurred.  This allows for so many different interpretations, take for instance Lincoln in “Gone With the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation”.  Their Lincolns differ greatly from Spielberg’s and show that history is distorted to use the desired message.  I think that it diminishes the actual truth of the time and makes me question what will be “rewritten” about our time period.


It takes a village

As I was sitting in class and watching Lincoln (2012), I repeatedly kept thinking “Hey, I recognize that actor/actress” but for the majority of the cameos, I could not remember either their name or which movie/TV show I recognized them from. We all know how annoying it is to recognize someone but not know their name, with this twinge of annoyance constantly being in the back of my mind as I watched Lincoln. If you were like me (constantly distracted by the cameos) then be relieved because I am about to reveal the top 10 actor cameos in Lincoln, and how you might possibly recognize these actors.

  1. Adam Driver as Lincoln’s telegraph operator 
    • Okay, we’ll start off easy. If you’re an HBO person, you’ll probably recognize Driver as “Adam” from Lena Dunham’s show Girls. If you’re the large majority of the population who saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you’ll recognize him as Kylo Ren, the tantrumming Solo who just wants to be Darth Vader.
  2. Walton Goggins as Democratic congressman
    • Though the name does not look familar, if you are a fan of Quentin Tarantino, you have definitely seen Goggins on the silver screen before. Goggins has been in two of Tarantino’s films: Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.
  3. David Constabile as Republican congressman James Ashley
    • If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, you’ll recognize Costabile as Gale Boetticher, a chemist and Walt’s lab assistant. If you’re a Suits fan (like myself), you’ll recognize him as Daniel Hardman, a founder of Peason-Hardman law firm and a man who used his dying wife as an excuse to steal money from the firm.
  4. Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley
    • You probably recognize Reuben from her role as Jeanie Boulet on the show ER.
  5. David Oyelowo as Corporal Ira Clark
    • Though Oyelowo had limited screen time in Lincoln, most individuals will recognize this actor for his powerful work as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in the 2014 film Selma.
  6. Dane DeHaan as second white soldier
    • Again, DeHaan had relatively brief screen time, but I hoped someone recognized his creepily blue eyes and remembered that he played Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man reboot sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
  7. Elizabeth Marvel as Mrs. Jolly
    • This cameo irritated me the most, mainly because during her two minutes of screen time as Mrs. Jolly (the woman who says she would part with slavery to end the war) I was racking my brain about why she was so familiar. For all the House of Cards fans, this actress portrayed Heather Dunbar, the former United States Solicitor General turned Democratic candidate.
  8. David Strathaim as Secretary of State, William H. Seward
    • Strathaim is most known for his roles in Goodnight, and Good Luck (2005), The Bourne Legacy (2012) and Godzilla (2014).
  9. Lee Pace as Democratic congressman Fernando Wood
    • One might recognize this jack-of-all-trades actor for his role as the piemaker who can ressurect people through his touch in Pushing Daises, Thrainduil the Elvenking in Lord of the Rings or as Ronan (the moping bad guy) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
  10. Boris McGiver as Democratic congressman Alexander Coffroth
    • Our last cameo is another House of Cards veteran, with McGiver being best known as Tom Hammerschmidt, the former Herald editor who just wrote a damning piece on Frank Underwood in season 4.

So there you have it, the top 10 cameos made my recognizable, but not too familiar actors. Though some cameos were more memorable than others, they can now all say that they were in a Spielberg film. What I personally take away from these findings is that in making a large film like Lincoln, it truly takes a large village of supporting actors to fill the smaller roles.

A Still-Relevant Take on Politics

Lincoln is the first film that I can say I saw before taking this class. I saw it in the State Theatre for my freshman year Rhetoric and Civic Life course, in which my professor emphasized the line about the compass not warning you of swamps, etc. I thought it was a poignant line that was very relevant in our age of extreme political partisanship. Now, a few years later, I still feel that it is relevant, especially with the presidential election coming up later this year.

Though there is a lot of interesting stuff happening in the (modern) Republican party, I’m going to focus on the Democrats since that’s what was mentioned during our class last Wednesday. I should preface this by saying that I haven’t been following the election very closely, and I am in favor of Bernie at the moment. We mentioned in class that Lincoln is the pragmatist, more comparable to Hillary. In that case, Bernie would be the idealist, like Stevens. The latter comparison is a fair one, I think. Bernie has lots of great ideas, but they can sound too good to be true. It would definitely be difficult to implement something like free college in the next four years, that’s for sure. However, I think comparing Spielberg’s Lincoln to Hillary is a bit more complicated. In the film, Lincoln believes in very lofty goals, but he is willing to compromise on the means to make the ends a reality. To outsiders, it may look like he doesn’t really believe in the equality of the races. Perhaps similarly, the current criticism that Hillary faces is that she doesn’t share some of the Democrats’ lofty goals and is now simply backtracking to win the primary. For instance, as far as I know Hillary has changed her opinion on such issues as LGBT marriage, the Keystone Pipeline, etc. Was she just compromising when she talked about those issues before? Did she really have a change of heart? Or, the worst option, is she just trying to win votes? It’s hard to say.

I would argue that, unfortunately, we can’t really know Hillary’s ideals without knowing her more personally. Perhaps if I read her book and paid more attention to the election, I’d feel differently but right now I just have mixed feelings. I can’t vote in the primaries anyway, so maybe my opinion isn’t as important, but I hope everyone who can will be voting in this coming election and gives some thought to this question of politicians’ true intentions.

Historical Accuracy in Film

I personally do not care about historical accuracy in film. I can’t completely cast it off though because as Dr. Jordan pointed out, there are practical considerations with historical accuracy such as when filmmakers might make up facts in order to propel a dangerous message inconsistent with history. But I am talking more in terms of quality. Historical accuracy or inaccuracy never changes my view of a film. Whether a film is true or not should not affect its actual quality.

Now, I have probably lost some people already who think teaching history can be a valid purpose for a film. I, on the other hand, have the base assumption that film is art and should not be confused with nonfiction. If a movie’s purpose is to teach, then it should no longer be a film but a video essay. Film is a very inefficient medium with which to teach. I think everyone can agree that Lincoln is not a great movie to teach the history of Lincoln’s presidency during the passing of the 13th amendment. Even if it was entirely historically accurate, it is still a small part of the picture, all that can be fit in in two and a half hours. And of course all of the filmmaking techniques that make the movie a spectacle remove it from being in any way unbiased.

Why should we be more invested in a film just because it is “based on a true story”? If the film was entirely the same but those five words were taken out, would you like the movie less? The Coen Brothers played on this with Fargo, by putting those words at the beginning of the film, even though it was entirely fiction.

To me, it is irrelevant whether the events in a film actually happened or not. Film is an art, and it is most successful when instead of just articulating facts, it attempts to convey deeper, universal truths. These truths are independent of any specific events. They still exist even if the story that conveys them is made up. Werner Herzog has talked about these ideas before and employs them in his own films. He says that what is more important than facts is “ecstatic truth” and fabricating reality is okay if it contributes to an ecstatic truth. The result may not be true under a factual analysis, but it is true in a deeper way.

This discussion applies to documentaries too. Documentaries, like dramas, are not the best way to actually teach topics. For me, the best documentaries are good because they are just inherently good movies regardless of whether the events in them are wholly true or fabricated. I judge documentaries as if they are fictional movies. Why should they be held to lower standards just because their content is supposedly true?

Method Acting Gone Too Far: Daniel Day-Lewis

We learned about Method Acting  back with On The Waterfront. It’s the idea of tapping into what the character would actually be experiencing at the time so that the acting can be “real.” It seems like a cool way to make the movie just that much better. But you know who takes it WAY TOO FAR? Daniel Day-Lewis.

Let’s look at Lincoln. He took a year off before filming so that he could read every book on Lincoln he could (over 100), work with a makeup artist to perfect the look, and working on his accent. And that accent was important. Daniel Day-Lewis is British by birth, so he doesn’t have that accent like in the movie. So, he refused to let anyone with any sort of accent that wasn’t American speak to him so that it didn’t mess up the way that he talked. Also, for the entirety of filming, he had everyone refer to him as Mr. President, even when they weren’t shooting. Imagine going up to craft services and he’s standing there as Lincoln and you have to refer to him as Mr. President. But he won his third Oscar for Best Actor for it, so whatever. Even though I will point out that Lincoln was described as having an extremely shrill voice, almost like a teapot, and that never happened.

But this isn’t his craziest moment. He spends so much time doing wild stuff just to be more realistic for movies. For The Last of the Mohicans, he went full survivalist. He taught himself how to hunt and live off the land, and for the entirety of filming, refused to eat anything that he hadn’t personally killed.And then he went off and learned how to build a canoe.

In The Name of the Father had our boy putting himself into solitary confinement for multiple day stretches, just because. When he was getting ready for the interrogation scene in that movie, he stayed awake for three days and nights. And, to make the “prisoner being tortured” role a little more accurate, he told crew members to randomly throw water at him.

For Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis refused to break character. At all. Liam Neeson hated him for it because they’d go out after a day of filming and Daniel Day-Lewis would still be in character in random bars and restaurants. He apprenticed as a butcher and would stay in character by sharpening knives when he wasn’t filming. Once, it was raining on set, and he refused to wear a warm jacket because it wasn’t period-accurate. Then, he got pneumonia. And he refused treatment because medicine wasn’t period-accurate.

Seriously, watch out. The desk you’re sitting at could actually just be Daniel Day-Lewis getting ready for his next role. Paul Dano quit There Will Be Blood  because Daniel Day-Lewis started throwing bowling balls at him, so just imagine what he’ll do to you.