The gist of "Lincoln," the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, presents fresh fare for movie goers and a hearty feast for history lovers.
Some aspects are exaggerated for humorous and dramatic effect, while other errors or omissions sneak into the story telling. Overall, however, director Steven Spielberg's tale is true to the times, a lesson in our great democracy.
Some nits (caution: some minor spoilers ahead):
In the president's first scene, Cpl. Ira Clark, a black soldier, speaks to him cheekily: If Clark had really talked like that to the commander-in-chief, he probably would have been hung by his thumbs - yes, this was a standard punishment - by his outraged white officers.
This rather sappy scene, where soldiers recite the Gettysburg address before the president, may be very loosely based on Lincoln's 1864 visit to an Army camp to get his first close look at the African-American units.
"The black troops received him most enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear, and displaying an amount of ivory terrible to behold," remarked Gen. U.S. Grant's aide, Horace Porter. "They cheered wildly, crowding around Lincoln, kissing his hand, brushing his coat or his horse so that they could tell others that they had touched the president. And Lincoln was touched. His eyes brimming with tears, his voice broke as he talked with the men; the encounter reminded everyone what was at stake."
In the scene, another black soldier says he was with the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry - unlikely, as that regiment was in Arkansas, half a continent away.
Lincoln's voice: Daniel Day-Lewis clearly tried to correctly modulate his voice, although it probably did not reach Lincoln's tenor. While Americans like to think of a deep rumble coming from the gentle giant, Lincoln spoke in a "clear and high-pitched voice that reached even the outer reaches of the huge crowd," biographer David Herbert Donald noted about the second inaugural address.
Buying the votes of Democratic congressmen: The movie correctly has Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) saying, "The greatest measure of the 19thcentury was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America." A significant part of the film is about the rounding up of Democratic votes by Secretary of State William Seward's little band of lobbyists/ scoundrels.
Their leader, Robert W. Lathram, did actually write: "Money will certainly do it, if patriotism fails," but only a few dollars of their fabled slush fund reportedly got spent. W.N. Bilbo (a hilarious James Spader), who tried in vain to get the New York governor to lean on some congressmen, ended up getting arrested as a Southern spy and needed Lincoln's intercession to be released.
In the end, a couple of patronage jobs probably got handed out. But Lincoln scholar Frank Williams noted, "It is doubtful that these deals were nearly as important in passing the amendment as were the above-board decisions of War Democrats and border statesmen to take a new stance on the issue of slavery."
Lincoln's profanity: The president's two "goddamns" and "get the hell out of here" are unlikely. Lincoln so rarely swore that when he once called a politician "a damned rascal," he was taken aback by his own utterance. "God knows I do not know when I have sworn before." He could lose his temper, though, once telling a man: "Now go away! Go away! I cannot attend to all these details. I could as easily bail out the Potomac with a teaspoon."
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