Review: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

EDWARD MCNULTY’S books on faith and film are used in congregations nationwide. Earlier, he reviewed Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve. In 2013, ReadTheSpirit will publish his new book, Blessed Are the Filmmakers. In the following review of the film LINCOLN, McNulty shows how to spark discussion in your small group. After the main review, he provides questions you can share with others.

Steven Spielberg’s


We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.
Romans 8:28

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S new film might better have been called The Thirteenth Amendment. The film is really about the passage of the constitutional amendment that forever abolished slavery. Rather than dealing with Abraham Lincoln’s life from his youth through his White House years, it covers just the last four months of his life: January 1 to April 19, 1865.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s incredibly moving depiction of the 16th president will no doubt be noticed at Oscar time. His portrayal of Lincoln is so masterful that it is bound to be the way that Americans will picture him for many years to come—speaking in a high and gentle voice, moving with a slightly stooped posture, his hands dangling down at his sides and so large that he rejects the tight gloves that his servant tells him Mrs. Lincoln wants him to wear. Superbly on display is Lincoln’s skill as a storyteller, honed from the days of his youth through his years in Illinois as a lawyer. Of course, that style is so irritating to his impatient Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) that Stanton leaves the room during one tense moment.

Sally Field is excellent as Mary Todd, ably showing by her shaking hands and her strident voice the inner turmoil Mary Todd often could not control. Her acidic put down of Sen. Thaddeus Stevens, who led the Congressional investigation of her extravagant expenditures using the public purse, is a delightful set piece. This and her volcanic argument with her husband are bound to lead to an Oscar nomination.

Two other actors should be singled out of the excellent cast, beginning with David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward. Once a rival for the presidency, the former New York governor is now Lincoln’s loyal confidante, to whom is entrusted the seemingly impossible task of rounding up the votes for passage of the amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives. The other actor, one who consistently steals scenes, is Tommy Lee Jones as the staunch abolitionist and radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He was often called the Dictator of Congress because he chaired the all-powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Stevens works with the man he once despised as too weak in his opposition to slavery. Now both of them are committed to ridding the nation of slavery forever. The scenes of Stevens’s floor fights with his opponents, especially with the pro-slavery Democrat Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) are priceless.


The film begins with a mercifully brief battle scene of soldiers stabbing, hacking, shooting, and even drowning one another in the mud. Then it moves to an almost worshipful scene as two black soldiers converse with the president, soon joined by two white soldiers. The latter are in awe that they are actually talking with the author of the Gettysburg Address—which it soon appears, all four have committed to memory. This is the first of several such scenes in which Spielberg adopts the Mt. Rushmore view of Lincoln, reminding us that this is The Great Man. Fortunately, there are also episodes of his humanity, such as when, wearing his house slippers, he lies down on the floor where his son Tad has fallen asleep. Tad wakes up, crawls onto his father’s back, and Lincoln slowly rises to take his son to bed. The camera stays focused on the ragged-looking slippers.

Early in the picture we learn that Mary Todd is urging her husband not to attempt to get the anti-slavery amendment passed. It has passed the Republican-dominated Senate, but the lame duck Congress has too many Democrats for the Republicans to reach the required two-thirds majority—they had already blocked one attempt the year before. His wife urges Lincoln “not to expend” his political capital gained from his re-election in such a hopeless cause. Lincoln presses on anyway.

It is urgent that the amendment be passed because the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime act, questioned by many as possibly unconstitutional and bound to expire when the war ended.

Although the credits state that Tony Kushner (Angels in America) based his script on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the film’s story of the struggle over the 13th Amendment is covered in just four pages in her book (pp. 686-690). And indeed, some of the details of the scenes at the climax of the ratification process are historically questionable, perhaps exaggerated for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, I cannot commend this film enough.


Of most interest to people of faith are the moral dilemmas faced by Lincoln and Stevens and the concept of Providence, evident in both Lincoln’s masterful Second Inaugural Address and in the strange and unlikely events of his life that unexpectedly led to his becoming president.

There are many moral, spiritual and ethical conflicts to discuss. For example, we usually say that “the end does not justify the means,” but this moral dictum is put to the test in this story. The stakes—the freedom of an entire people in the nation—are extremely high. Both Lincoln and Stevens forsake their ethical principles in order to bestow this great blessing upon the nation.

In sparking a discussion about the film, there are many scenes to highlight. Many facets of Lincoln’s character are shown in memorable sequences. There is one tender scene in which Lincoln reads through a stack of court martial documents in which the president tries to find some reason for over-ruling the death sentence. Through Lincoln’s struggles to escape his frontier ignorance and poverty, and his bitter disappointments when Steven Douglas defeated him twice—God fashioned a man of perseverance who insisted that the Union be saved at all costs, and then, when the war was almost won, who refused to take the advice of almost everyone else that he should not try to get the 13th Amendment ratified.

My hope is that church groups view the film and then gather to discuss its issues. Also, the film might send viewers to the library or to their computers to seek out more information on this amazing man.


What do you think of the juxtaposition of the opening battle scene with the quiet one of Lincoln talking with the four soldiers? (Or, select another thought-provoking scene to start your discussion.)

Talk about the overwhelming consensus—from Mary Todd to members of Lincoln’s cabinet—against Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of the 13th Amendment. What kept Lincoln on course? Are there other instances you can recall, beyond the Civil War, when “everyone” seemed to be arguing against the pursuit of justice?

Consider the Lincoln marriage. Do you think that the term “love-hate relationship” applies to the Lincoln marriage?  The film shows Lincoln primarily focusing his life on the needs of others—while Mary Todd focuses mainly on herself. What seems to cause this fundamental difference in their personalities?

What do you think of Lincoln’s storytelling? How do we see it relieving tension or making people think? How must humor have been absolutely essential for Lincoln to stand up to so much pressure? How important is storytelling in sharing faith and connecting lives today?

What portrait does this movie paint of Lincoln’s racial views? Talk about how you view Lincoln’s assumptions after seeing this movie. Assuming the film is historically accurate, how do we see this man transform into an unflinching opponent of slavery?

What do we learn of Lincoln’s faith in the film? There are few explicit references to religion, but what seems to be his view of God? How does Lincoln’s life bear out Paul’s theology in Romans 8?


Ed McNulty also has written a thought-provoking overview of Abraham Lincoln’s religious life. Various books and websites explore this issue, a source of ongoing debate among historians. Read McNulty’s overview for fascinating details about Lincoln’s pastors, through the years, and some of Lincoln’s own words on the subject of faith to Quaker visitors.

Care to read more from Edward McNulty?

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