copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

Lincoln in contemporary U.S. culture and politics
by Douglas Kellner

In 2012, Abraham Lincoln appeared once more as a major icon in Hollywood film culture. Steven Spielberg’s epic Lincoln (2012) was preceded by two genre films Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. Directed by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012) depicts Lincoln fighting a group of vampires, presented as a Southern slave-owning aristocracy and wanting to take over the entirety of the United States. Although this theme is not articulated, Bekmambetov’s campy genre satire can be read as an allegory of rapacious reactionaries who want to enslave the entire country, thus positioning Lincoln as the People’s Champion of freedom and democracy.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Richard Schenkman’s Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012) deploys the form of Asylum films mockbuster genre to satirize the big-budget vampire-slayer film in a mock-epic of Lincoln saving the country from an attacking horde of Confederate zombies, another allegory that depicts Lincoln as saving the country from darkness and destruction, a project also central in Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Spielberg’s Lincoln can be contrasted to John Ford’s 1939 film Young Mr. Lincoln, which focused on a specific era of Lincoln’s life to try to evoke the defining qualities of the man who would come to be considered by many as the greatest U.S. president. Ford’s film became the subject of one of the most influential film analyses of the 1970s, which was taken as a key text in the dissemination of a new form of French structuralist/ semiotic and political/ ideological cinema analysis and critique of the period.[2] In retrospect, Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln mythologizes Lincoln as the modest trial lawyer who teaches himself to read and learn the law and to use it to resolve conflicts and establish justice. In Ford’s film, Lincoln is constantly studying, consulting and quoting books to make his point, establishing law as grounded in text and tradition, and serving the interests of the common man.

John Ford and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movies can both serve as exemplars of auteur cinema, as epics of U.S. history, as ideological interventions into specific historical contexts, and as reproducing certain forms of hegemonic ideology. Both films enact a naturalization of the Lincoln myth (Cahiers, 503f), and present a heroic and redemptive Lincoln. Both feature top actors who initially rejected the role out of modesty, but were talked into representing one of the U.S.’s most revered presidents and historical figures, and gave what were considered to be major performances. For Henry Fonda, his young Mr. Lincoln established him as a first-line movie star, where the older Daniel Day-Lewis confirmed his status as a top global film star of the highest rank. Ford was about to embark on a career as one of Hollywood’s most respected auteur directors, whereas Spielberg cemented his status as a director who could make epic films dealing with the most serious subjects, as well as genre films, dealing with the joys and terrors of U.S. suburban life.[3]

Spielberg’s Lincoln contributes to his own reputation as a major global film auteur, and the film stands as one of his most significant historical epics, along with Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Munich, to name some of Spielberg’s big-budget historical epics dealing with weighty themes. Amistad (1997), Spielberg’s gripping film of an 1839 slave rebellion and subsequent trial of the slaves who took over the ship, provides a preview of Spielberg’s argument for the equality of blacks and whites in Lincoln, and also indicates the coming inevitability of a conflict over slavery and hence the Civil War. Like Lincoln, it presents a triumphal ideological view of the ability of the U.S. legal and political system to resolve complex and dangerous conflicts, and to provide just solutions to burning problems. The Great Man vision of history, which informs Lincoln, also informs Amistad in its portrait of the heroic leader of the slave rebellion Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), and the brilliant legal maneuvers of John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who ensures that justice will be done for the rebellious slaves.

Based on a script by award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, Lincoln provides a highly literate presentation of Lincoln as public speaker, debater, story teller, effective legislator, dedicated family man, and savior of the nation. The dialogue is exceptionally intelligent, especially in debating slavery and the Thirteenth amendment, and few Hollywood films have ever gone into as much detail in presenting the complex process of state politics, warts and all, portraying the wheeling and dealing necessary to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, the major thematic focus of Lincoln.

The Lincoln project began when, while consulting with Spielberg in 1999, Doris Kearns Goodwin told the filmmaker that she was planning to write a book about Lincoln and the Civil War to be called Team of Rivals.[4] Spielberg indicated his interest in the film rights, and DreamWorks finalized the deal in 2001. After rejecting scripts by John Logan and Paul Webb, Spielberg asked playwright Tony Kushner to draft a screenplay. Kushner's initial 500-page draft focused on four months in the life of Lincoln, and Spielberg told him to shorten it. The next draft delivered in February 2009 limited itself to the last two months in Lincoln's life when he was preoccupied with passing the Thirteenth Amendment.

Hence, while the Kushner/Spielberg’s figure of Abraham Lincoln is constructed in the film as a major icon and visionary of U.S. history, one of its interesting features is that it dissects the often messy process of legislative politics in the U.S. political system, as President Lincoln does whatever is necessary to assemble the votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Spielberg’s Lincoln is thus a great idealist and visionary, but also a pragmatist, making the necessary deal to get the amendment passed, including cutting moral corners, just as Henry Fonda’s Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln cut corners to win the tug of war contest by tying the rope to a cart. Both Ford and Spielberg’s Lincoln are shown as practical down-to-earth men who get things done, and are driven to success, often at the price of a happy personal life.

With the exception of moral fudging in the tug of war mentioned above, Ford’s Lincoln is an exemplar of law and morality, but in the Cahiers critique (p. 504), Young Mr. Lincoln erases politics. In contrast, Spielberg’s film immerses itself in the process of political conflict and the legislative process in which votes are passed. Ford’s Lincoln is portrayed as a young man who is beyond petty politics and the cares of everyday life, and is more of the ascetic U.S. monomyth figure who must stand outside of the community so that he can return with his magical gifts to his society and culture.[5] Spielberg’s mature Lincoln, by contrast, enjoys (and often suffers) family and political life, while focusing on the enormous challenges that he has inherited.

Celebrating Lincoln’s fervent attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment that would outlaw slavery during the last year of the Civil War, Spielberg’s film presents Lincoln as far-seeing and visionary, realizing that if slavery is not legally eliminated, it will return after the war no matter what the outcome. Lincoln depicts how the President’s cabinet members and political advisors were first dead-set against passing the anti-slavery amendment, which would split their own party and possibly detract from ending the war, entering its fourth bloody year. Much of the narrative of the film centrally focuses on how the President created alliances within his own party and brought in anti-slavery members of the Democratic party, often getting down and dirty in the legislative process to produce results, including shady horse-trading and bribes. There is narrative and visual focus on counting the votes of the film with a dramatic thrust of coming down to the last minute to nail the decisive votes in a cliff-hanger. The narrative deploys W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) and other seedy Republican political operations to round-up votes from lame-duck Congressmen and others who might be susceptible to patronage jobs, bribery, and other dubious methods.

Although Lincoln was partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals,[6] the Kushner/Spielberg narrative does not really flesh out the personalities of Lincoln’s fellow cabinet members, or their complex relations and interaction, following the Hollywood model of having the Great Man controlling the other characters and situations in a very Lincoln-centric story that shows how Lincoln balances relations between a vast cast of characters, as well as complex and challenging relations within his own family. The focus is intensely positioned in discrete rooms with Lincoln interacting with other characters, although some scenes show Lincoln with the public, and present the popular President as a man of the people interacting with citizens throughout the film, in his office regularly meeting with people with problems, bantering with crowds in the streets, and interacting with troops as well as generals.

Like Spielberg’s Lincoln, Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln (New York: Vintage, 2000) and Lamont Johnson’s TV mini-series Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1988), based on Vidal’s novel, are Lincoln-centric, although Kushner-Spielberg’s film is more so. Both the Kushner-Spielberg and Vidal-Johnson films portray Lincoln’s interaction with his cabinet, other historical figures, and his family, as does Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, although the Spielberg film is more narrow in its focus, concentrating on the last four months of Lincoln’s life and the passing of the 13th Amendment. The Vidal novel and TV-mini-series, by contrast, present an epic of Lincoln’s entire presidency and the key dramatic events of the Civil War and multiple challenges that Lincoln faced.

The Vidal novel and mini-series also flesh out Lincoln’s complex interaction with his contemporaries in a more multidimensional fashion than Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln that follows the Great Man approach. Such a sustained focus on providing a reverential portrait of the figure of Lincoln is overdetermined by Hollywood’s dominant ideology of individualism, Spielberg’s cinematic sentimentality and focus on individual figures, Kushner and Spielberg’s adorational portrait of Lincoln, and Spielberg’s figure as a dominant global proponent of U.S. and Hollywood ideology. Gore Vidal, by contrast, is a highly idiosyncratic writer whose many historical novels present often critical and demythologizing views of U.S. history, as in Vidal's 1876 which chronicles the political scandals and dark intrigues that rocked the United States in its bi-centennial year, depicting the ways economic forces corrupt U.S. democracy. Indeed, Vidal’s Lincoln saga focuses on the corruption of the political and economic system during the Lincoln era and in a scathing portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, far more critical than the Spielberg-Kushner depiction, unfolds how the Lincoln presidency was implicated in financial scandals and corruption of the era, through detailed portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln’s profligate spending and the morally and politically corrupt manner in which she financed her sprees of personal consumption and White House renovation schemes.

Spielberg’s Lincoln opens with the violence of a Civil War battle scene, zooming in on a black soldier carrying a U.S. flag, and cutting to a field of battle full of wounded and dead soldiers. A voice-over dialogue introduces Lincoln talking to black soldiers who frankly tell him the Union took too long in giving them equal pay, and the soldiers also forcefully articulate their dissatisfaction with the lack of black officers in the Union army. Lincoln promises that conditions will improve for blacks in the country and the scene ends with two white soldiers seeing Lincoln and reciting by memory Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with one of the black soldiers finishing the eloquent speech, which makes clear the stakes of the war for former slaves and Lincoln’s status as the Voice of Emancipation.

Yet after this powerful opening scene, black voices almost disappear, and there is little discussion of race with African Americans in the rest of the movie, with black people retiring into roles as servants and nannies, or silent soldiers on the battlefield. Yet there is one scene where Mary Todd Lincoln’s maid Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) tells Lincoln of her admiration for his support of the Thirteenth amendment, and Lincoln clumsily tells her that he really doesn’t know or understand black people, but believes that because human beings are similar they will be able to relate in a future United States. Further, Keckley is present everyday beside Mary at the Congressional debates over the Thirteenth Amendment and her gaze is positioned as a mark of judgment on the politicians’ debating.

However, the gender politics of Spielberg’s Lincoln are relatively underdeveloped with few women characters. Mary Lincoln’s key scenes in the film have her still emotionally devastated by the death of their son Willie, and overwrought in her opposition to their son Robert’s entering the military. While Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln has many women in secondary roles, relating Lincoln to his dead mother and the mother of the boys he saves in the trial that is the culmination of the film, to his lost love Ann Rutledge, as well as to Mary Todd and to the wives of the boys that he saved, one of whom impulsively kisses him, in Lincoln only Mary Todd Lincoln has a significant role and a minimalized one at that. Curiously, one scene that is replicated in Young Mr. Lincoln and Lincoln features a dance scene where Mary Todd invites a poorly dressed and clumsy Abraham Lincoln to dance, and then quickly sweeps him off the floor. The scene in both films situates Mary Todd as upper class and cultured, and Lincoln as clumsy and unschooled in the ways of upper crust social life, a plain-spoken and simple man of the people.

The Cahiers analysis reads this scene in terms of Mary’s castration of Lincoln and how he must renounce love and erotic gratification (pp. 516f), but Spielberg’s Lincoln presents Lincoln in media res as President, family man, and man of the people, a fully engaged and multidimensional individual. The relative absence of African Americans, women, and even of his cabinet “team of rivals” from Spielberg’s narrative positions his Lincoln as a Great White Man of history, the center of the narrative and cinematic world, and controller of the nation’s destiny (whereas Young Mr. Lincoln in the Cahiers reading simply presents Lincoln’s future destiny as Great Man in Ford’s film). In Spielberg’s film, Lincoln is the Master of the House, the State, and Nation, the moral center of the narrative, and the Great Man who produced a Great Nation.

Just as the absence of a determining force of other voices and figures in Kushner/ Spielberg’s positioning Lincoln as Great Man in the ideology of heroic individualism, likewise in Robert Redford’s The Conspirators (2011), Lincoln’s absence in the assassination conspiracy scenes positions him as the Great National Hero who the forces of darkness wish to take down and destroy, just as the Republican right and rightwing media attack machine has been engaged in a four-year attempt to take down Barack Obama.

Interestingly, Spielberg held up the release of Lincoln until some days after the 2012 election, so that he would not be accused of influencing the election,[8] and perhaps losing Republican viewers, who might believe that Spielberg is not a patriotic celebrator of U.S. democracy, as much as a Democratic Party fellow traveler and financier.[9] Spielberg’s reluctance to be seen as a partisan in the election can be contrasted with Harvey Weinstein’s release right before the election of Seal Team 6: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden (2012). Directed by John Stockwell and produced by Weinstein, the potboiler was shown on cable television just before the election, and allegedly contained newsreel footage added at the last moment associating Obama with the Seals’ heroism in capturing and killing Osama Bin Laden.[10]
In fact, Spielberg’s Lincoln provides contemporary lessons for Barack Obama.[11] The message for Obama is that flights of oratory and rhetoric are great, but you have to be fully engaged with Congress, including getting your hands dirty, to produce results. And another message for Obama is that to get progressive results you need to reach out to radicals, as Lincoln reached out to fierce anti-abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed. Indeed, the ethos of Lincoln evokes the contemporary U.S. political scene with an extremely divided country, vicious partisan bickering, and exceedingly corrupt wheeling and dealing to get votes and legislation passed. It shows a broken Congressional system that requires bribes and coercion to marshal votes and an executive branch that requires Herculean labors to get things done. It pictures Congress as a nest of intrigue and partisan bickering, evoking images of a divided and contentious Congress during the Obama years in the U.S. today.

Spielberg’s Lincoln excels in showing Lincoln’s cabinet coalescing behind the president’s positions and how he uses arguments, homespun stories, humor and sometimes coercion to gain consensus and push through the Thirteenth Amendment. Hence, the political struggles of the contemporary moment between Barack Obama and the Democrats and the Republican right and their media allies underlie the thematics of Spielberg’s Lincoln. Lincoln’s pragmatism in the film is shared by Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most radical abolitionists who during a crucial debate insists that the Thirteenth Amendment merely supports equality before the law and does not assert full equality between people—a position that Stevens had earlier supported. When pressed later in the narrative concerning why he did not take such a radical position, Stevens pragmatically replied that he was simply interested in helping get the bill passed, and not making a philosophical statement. In a powerful philosophical segment, Lincoln articulates his position on equality by explaining to two boys working in the telegraph office how Euclid’s notion of how things that are equal to each other are equal, are analogous to arguing that people who are equal as human beings are in fact equal, asserting to a young telegraph operator:

“Euclid’s first common notion is this. Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works. Has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is ‘self-evident.’ You see there it is even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law. It is a self-evident truth that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”

While Spielberg’s Lincoln is an exemplar of Hollywood heroic individualism, as is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, the Kushner/Spielberg narrative also transcodes liberal discourses of justice and equality, as Lincoln sees the limits of his Emancipation Proclamation and the need to abolish slavery to heal and unify the nation. The cinematic vision in Lincoln calls for the unification of North and South, Democrats and Republicans, Black and White, all free and equal in a democratic Republic. The film ends on a high note quoting from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural providing a vision of an emancipated, healed, and peaceful nation:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”[12]


1. Although Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter does not develop this theme, with Southern aristocrats as the vampiric villains, I thought of Marx’s metaphor of capital as a vampire sucking out the blood of living labor; for development of the vampire metaphor in Marx, see Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts in Air. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981; I was saddened to read recently that Marshall had passed away. [return to text]

2. See Editors of Cahiers du Cinema, “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 223 (1970), translated in Screen, vol. 13, no. 3 (Autumn, 1972), and anthologized in Bill Nichols, editor, Movies and Methods. An Anthology (Berkley: University of California Press, 493-528. I will refer to pagination in the text from the Nichols anthology and refer to the text as Cahiers.

3. See my previous Jump Cut article on Spielberg, Douglas Kellner, "Spielberg's Ideology Machines: "Poltergeist and the Suburban Middle Class," Jump Cut, No. 28 (1983), 5-6, on-line at http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC28folder/Poltergeist.html (accessed November 23, 2012). Spielberg has continued his intense focus on middle class U.S. life in subsequent films but also also expanded his purview to take on epic historical themes like slavery, the Civil War, and the Holocaust.

4. See the account of Lincoln’s genesis at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_(2012_film)#cite_note-millenium-33 (accessed on November 25, 2012).

5. For an illuminating study of the U.S. monomyth which draws on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With the Thousand Faces, see Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

6. See Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals. The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. The cover of the 2012 re-issue of Goodwin’s book has the face of Lincoln on the cover with graphics underneath noting “A Steven Spielberg film” and in larger caps LINCOLN, followed by “Based in Part On” (words used in the concluding credits of Lincoln). In fact, only pp. 686-690 of Goodwin’s book constitute the main narrative frame of the film, although it draws on other parts for flashbacks and dialogue. Also, in contrast to the film, Goodwin’s book sketches out the parallel lives of Lincoln and three of his major cabinet members and sometimes rivals, while describing their interaction throughout the Civil War. The Kushner/Spielberg text, by contrast, is highly Lincoln-centric and of Goodwin’s characters only William Seward gets significant screen-time.

7. See See Kate Masur, “In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters,” New York Times, November 12, 2012 at (accessed November 25, 2012).

8. See J.R. Jones, “Dishonest Abe. Steven Spielberg's long-awaited biopic of the 16th president reveals the pol behind the legend,” November 7, 2012, Chicago Reader at http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/dishonest-abe/Content?oid=7880189 (accessed November 25, 2012). Jones writes: “Steven Spielberg's commanding biopic about the 16th president, has been scheduled to open three days after the election—probably so that Spielberg, a deep-pocketed Obama backer, can't be accused of trying to swing the election for the first African-American president.” Strictly speaking, Lincoln is not a biopic, but is a historical epic about a crucial moment in U.S. politics.

9. It may be that the studio or other interested parties held up release of the film, and in this study I am not able to engage the production history of the film beyond information found on the genesis of the film project. Clearly, however, Lincoln is an auteur-production of Steven Spielberg, although the high quality of the dialogue and drama of many of the scenes are no doubt highly indebted to Tony Kushner, one of the country’s greatest playwrights. It will be interesting to discover if there were conflicts and disharmonies between Spielberg, Kushner, and others involved in the production of the film. So far, I have discovered no information concerning whether there were conflicts between Spielberg, Kushner, and others over the development of Lincoln, and most of the publicity I saw at the time of the release of the film and during its campaign for Oscars, Spielberg and Kushner were portrayed as friendly and respectful collaborators.

10. See John Patterson, “This Harvey Weinstein-produced docudrama borrows from The Hurt Locker and Homeland to give us a grisly rendition of a decisive moment in the war on terror,” Guardian, November 6, 2012 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/series/first-look-review+harvey-weinstein (accessed on November 24, 2012). Seal Team Six could be contrasted with an excessively rightwing militarist film Acts of Valor (2012), which uses real-life Seals speaking military Sealspeak in an ideological glorification of Seals’ acts of valor in a heavily-contrived rightwing scenario that link Ukrainian smugglers, Mexican war lords, and Jihadist terrorists, aiming at the Homeland as an Axis of Evil, and threatening the U.S. while the Seals successfully defend the country. The stage was thus set for one of the most highly anticipated and contested films of 2012, Kathleen Bigelow’s celebration of the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. The film legitimated torture and political assassination while generating heated debate over its politics.

11. Andrew O’Hehir has his “Lessons for Obama, from Abe Lincoln” in Salon, November 3, 2012 at http://www.salon.com/2012/11/03/lessons_for_obama_from_abe_lincoln/ (accessed on November 24, 2012). Interestingly, it was Lincoln’s concept of “team of rivals,” popularized in Goodwin’s book, which allegedly inspired Barack Obama to put Hilary Clinton and other “rivals” into his cabinet just as Lincoln did.

12. Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address,” in Speeches and Writings 1859-1865. Library of America: New York, 1989, p. 687.

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