This post takes a look at what's real and what's fiction in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Have a film you want us to discuss? Let us know! First up, in honor of President Lincoln's birthday, Becca shares her views on how historically accurate Spielberg's Lincoln is.
As a tour guide in Washington, D.C., I talk about Abraham Lincoln a lot. Not that I mind - I’m an intense Lincoln enthusiast - but it’s pretty much guaranteed that if you take one of our walking tours, Honest Abe is going to come up. And one of the questions I hear most on my tours isn’t about Lincoln the man but rather, Lincoln - the movie!
Guests on my Lincoln Assassination or Capitol Hill tours are likely to ask what I thought of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film - Is the film historically accurate? Were the characters all real people? Was Lincoln really like Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal? I certainly can’t speak of having personal knowledge of what Abraham Lincoln was like but I can highlight a few ways the film is accurate - and a couple of ways it’s pure fiction.
- Fact: Lincoln was a politically savvy President.
Spielberg’s film, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, focuses on Lincoln’s drive to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and bring an end to the Civil War. The film doesn’t shy away from showing Lincoln’s ability to manipulate, maneuver, and manage the factious group of politicians making up his executive cabinet. While we may often think of Lincoln as a high-minded idealist who had a penchant for folksy jokes and fables, he was a man who knew how to use his admirable intellect to achieve his goals.
- Fiction: Lincoln’s cabinet was a Team of Rivals in 1865.
By the time the film takes place, Lincoln isn’t really dealing with a cabinet of former political rivals and opponents - he’s mostly dealing with a Team of Loyalists. Lincoln had grown tired of the fighting and opposition that he’d replaced the most troublesome members of his cabinet (so long, Salmon Chase and Montgomery Blair!) All those scenes in the film where he’s cajoling and convincing his cabinet to get on board with his plan? It makes for good drama but not accurate history.
- Fact: Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance of Lincoln is much closer to reality than previous performances.
Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay (whose biography of Lincoln, written with John Nicholay, is one of our best historical records of the President) described Lincoln as having “that weary, introverted look” - something Day-Lewis captures brilliantly. Lincoln worked 14 hour days and that exhaustion is evident in the film. He also gives his cinematic Lincoln a wonderful voice, described by contemporary accounts as raspy, high-pitched, and with a Southern Indiana drawl.
- Fiction: Lincoln cursing at his Cabinet and raising a hand to his son.
Based on what we know, Lincoln swore very infrequently and we have no account that he would have done so in front of his Cabinet. There is also a scene where Lincoln slaps his eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. This is pure Hollywood - there’s no documented evidence that Lincoln ever raised a hand to any of his sons and it wasn’t in line with his parenting style! (That said, some say that Robert Todd Lincoln was cursed - you can learn more about him on our Historic Georgetown and Ghosts of Georgetown tour.)
- Fact: Lincoln used his famous stovepipe hat as a traveling desk.
This is one of my favorite things about Lincoln - and the film captures it perfectly! Lincoln did, at various points in his career, use his hat as a briefcase, carrying around speeches, notes, and scraps of paper!
While there are certainly more nuanced aspects of the film that could be debated in the gray area between fact and fiction (the tenor of the marriage between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, the high-spirited debate on the floor of the House of Representatives to pass the Amendment), I find Lincoln to be not only a great film but the best cinematic representation of our 16th President. More than any film before it, Lincoln brings us closest to discovering the man behind the legend.
To hear the full story of the night of Lincoln's Assassination, follow our free Lincoln Assassination Walking Tour.