Guest Columns


The movie Lincoln is almost as satisfying as reading “Team of Rivals”

Contributing Columnist

Last week, my friend and colleague, Doug Young, wrote a brilliant review of the recently released Stephen Spielberg film, Lincoln. As follow up, I have three enthusiastic recommendations: First, go see the movie. Second, take 5-10 minutes to read the actual texts of Abraham Lincoln’s two greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863) and his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865). Third, with both the movie and Lincoln’s poetic prose fresh in your mind, read or re-read Mr. Young’s review in the November 23 edition of The Colorado Statesman.

The movie review (“A Review Divided Against Itself...”) is so precisely and accurately structured upon those two speeches, and the modern day political insights and cinematic commentary so ingeniously and deftly woven into that structure, that all I can do is acknowledge the tour de force and feebly add, “Yeah, what Doug said!”

I suppose I can also comment, in a more pedestrian fashion, on some of my own favorite and not-so-favorite parts of this movie about my favorite President. It should go without saying that Lincoln is required viewing for any casual student of American history and/or politics. Many readers have no doubt already heard or seen accounts of the obsessive attention to detail and accuracy brought to this work by the director, writer, and lead actor... all the way down to the ticking of Abe Lincoln’s personal pocket watch, the tolling of the original church bells near the White House upon the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives, etc!

I will be stunned if screenwriter Tony Kushner does not win every available award for this screenplay. Likewise, Daniel Day-Lewis for best Actor. Day-Lewis is so convincing as Abraham Lincoln that we will all be hard-pressed to remember brilliant previous depictions of our 16th President by Sam Waterston and Hal Holbrook. (And by the way, it’s a wonderful touch that former Lincoln impersonator-extraordinaire Holbrook was cast in this movie as the crusty old Andrew Jackson crony and political boss, Francis Preston Blair, Sr.).

For pure, laugh-out-loud, entertainment value, a special award should be given simultaneously to both Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader. Jones, portraying Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, nearly steals the show with his eloquent insults of proslavery opponents on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and James Spader actually does succeed in stealing the show as the most quintessential caricature of a “LOBBYIST” likely to ever be scripted or produced.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.
Photo by David James, SMPSP — DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

Other indispensible historic characters are likewise skillfully portrayed by a most recognizable cast of actors, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as William Henry Seward (Lincoln’s trusted Secretary of State), and Joseph Gordon Levitt as the Lincolns’ oldest son, Robert.

My few criticisms of the film are fairly minor in the overall context of the story it tells, but nonetheless worth mentioning:

• For some reason the writer and director chose to trivialize another historic giant, Ulysses S. Grant, by rendering his character nothing more than a delivery mechanism for some transitional dialogue and observations about Lincoln’s physical appearance. Given Grant’s role as Lincoln’s most trusted general and the man who won the military side of the war, I think his memory would have been better served by concocting some fictitious or lesser historic character to comment that Lincoln didn’t look too good by the end of the war.

• Likewise, it seemed to me an unfortunate missed opportunity to not depict the famous episode of Lincoln’s walk through Richmond right after it fell in 1865. As he walked along the streets, he was mobbed by appreciative recently freed slaves and then entered the Confederate White House and sat down in Jefferson Davis’ office chair to rest. I’m told this scene was actually filmed but didn’t make the final cut of the movie — too bad.

• Mary Todd Lincoln’s role seemed a bit contrived to me, at least in terms of how actively she might have been involved in lobbying and monitoring debate on the 13th Amendment in the House.

• Finally, I simply refuse to believe that Abraham Lincoln would have slapped his son, at least not in public, but maybe that’s a true story I’ve somehow missed.

However, as mentioned above, these are all relatively minor criticisms of an important history that is accurately and sensitively well told.

I’ve written on several occasions in the past about the historic importance and readability of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterpiece, Team of Rivals. Perhaps the greatest testament to the quality of Spielberg’s movie is that she, along with other noted Lincoln/Civil War scholars such as James M. McPherson and Harold Holzer, not only served as consultants, but that they apparently approve of the finished work. Having read more than I care to admit over the years about Lincoln and his times, I was pleasantly and positively surprised by the care and accuracy with which this story was told on the screen, and I hope everyone with even a passing interest in our nation’s history takes the time to go see it.

Oh yeah, one more historic footnote for those of you less obsessed with Lincoln and the Civil War: Doug’s title to his review is from neither of the speeches he plagiarized with such nuanced skill — Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech was actually delivered on June 17, 1858 in Springfield, IL, as he embarked on his unsuccessful Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas. That speech is also well worth reading, but first go see the movie Lincoln.

Columnist Patrick Teegarden has been chronicling the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln for The Colorado Statesman during the sesquicentennial celebration. He can be reached at He works as a legislative liaison for a state agency in the Hickenlooper administration.