Prolific Director Steven Spielberg’s Historical Biography of Abraham Lincoln, ‘Lincoln’ explores the turbulent last few months of his life when he is trying to pass the thirteenth amendment to the constitution and abolish slavery while also having to deal with the great loss of life occuring on the battle fields of the raging American Civil War. With talks of peace treaties being offered from the Confederate South, Lincoln’s chances of ending slavery in America get slimmer as each day passes, as peace is the priority for a majority of the politicians in power, so it is up to Lincoln to garner enough support for the amendment before time runs out and thus ending the war. This essay will explore the ways in which ‘Lincoln’ tries to get across its intended message to its audience. Through analysing the techniques used in the mise en scene, writing and the themes of the movie, we can determine whether Spielberg’s story about one of the most extraordinary Americans to ever live is merely an attempt to paint an accurate portrait of the type of person that Abraham Lincoln really was, or whether Spielberg set out to influence his audience by pushing his own political agenda through the film. With two scenes in particular, I will discuss the ways in which form and theme might have been used, as well as examining how the movie was received by critics, audiences and historians alike. With these ideas in mind, we can begin to analyse the films form and content to better understand the message that Spielberg intended for his audience and the techniques which he used to do so.
To determine whether Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ is a piece of propaganda, we must first look into what it means for a film to be propaganda. If we were to take the common notion of what propaganda is, in that it is any piece of media that attempts to push across its message to influence its viewers, then we could say that pretty much every film ever made is a piece of propaganda as it is a filmmakers goal to leave a lasting impression on the viewer, to make them think. But if we accept this notion that every movie is in some way a piece of propaganda, there is still discourse that tie the purpose of Spielberg’s Lincoln to that of having political influence during the era in which the idea for the movie was conceived and produced. In one pivotal scene in the movie, Lincoln holds a meeting with his cabinet to discuss plans to end the war, the room erupts into debate over what reasons Lincoln has to still try to pass the thirteenth amendment after he has already passed the emancipation proclamation, which allowed the union government to confiscate slaves from the south and treat them as confiscated property, which essentially went the slaves were freed when they got to the north. Lincoln points out that he needs to pass the thirteenth amendment because once the war is over he cannot be sure that the freed slaves would legally be able to remain free. This scene highlights Lincoln’s moral struggles and is meant to make us, the viewer, admire Lincoln as he explains to his cabinet that the ends justify the means. Many parallels can be drawn between the representation of Lincoln’s presidency and the Presidency of Barack Obama. One major instance of when Obama’s administration mirrored that of Lincoln’s is when Obama was faced with the conundrum of having to deal with US citizens who were suspected of being terrorists. Like Lincoln, when having to overrule the courts and issue executive orders such the Emancipation Proclamation, Obama was in a similar situation during his first term when he had to assert Unitary executive theories, that allowed him to be in full control of the executive branch of the government when deciding what to do with so-called home grown terrorists. Looking at how Spielberg’s Lincoln mirrors the troubles and problems that Spielberg’s real life friend Obama had to deal with, we can assert that by deciding to portray Lincoln as a man who stands undoubtedly besides his principles and always wants what is best for the nation, Spielberg is influencing his audience into having compassion for a man who faces those same problems in the real world, such as President Obama.
The movie was released in 2012, during which time the president of the united states of america was Obama. Historians and political commentators alike have drawn comparisons between Obama and our movies titular character, with many having agreed that, like Julie Nokhov states in her essay “The Dangerous Fantasy of Lincoln: Framing Executive Power as Presidential Mastery.”, “his (Obama’s) supporters and allies have placed Lincoln’s mantle on his shoulders.”, as well as pointing out how Obama’s race brought Lincoln into discussion when he was running for president. Obama himself stated the important influence that Lincoln’s presidency had on his own. Obama appointed his own political rivals into his own cabinet, such as Hilary Clinton, who became his secretary of state, which drew comparisons between him and Lincoln’s own cabinet which where nicknamed his “Team of Rivals”. The book which was credited as the inspiration for the movie, so much so that ‘Lincoln’ was nominated at the academy awards for best adapted screenplay ever though there were only four pages in the entire book about the passing the thirteenth Amendment, was titled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, released in 2005. Just from the title of the book we see that there is a strong chance that this book, and therefore any form of media claiming to be based off of it, will be biased in strong favour of Abraham Lincoln’s character as a human being and as a president. Obama has stated this book is one of his favourites and even as a senator, Obama reached out and met with Goodwin to discuss her book, With such a strong connection between Barack Obama and the material that inspired the movie, it would be hard to deny that anyone with as much research as Spielberg, who had spent around a decade developing the movie and three years intensely studying Abraham Lincoln, would not have in some way drawn on these connections and that they could have influenced the message of the film, especially due to the fact the Steven Spielberg was a major contributor to Obama’s super PAC, donating over one million dollars to help with Obama’s 2012 re-election.
The movie opens with a battle scene the only one in the entire movie. As the camera looks over the gruesome close combat battle, we see the violence and bloodshed in which the soldiers of the American Civil War were entrenched. The American Union flag of the North is prominent, being carried across the battle. Within the combat we see both black and white soldiers, both being killed and both doing the killing. are faced with visceral shots of men being impaled by bayonets and others having their heads crushed under boots, being drowned under the brown muddy water. A voice over begins and we cut to a black soldier describing the events of the battle that we have just watched, he identifies himself to the man he is speaking to, the camera tracks back revealing the statuesque silhouette of a man, he is speaking to President Lincoln. Another black soldier interrupts, talking to Lincoln about the inequalities that black soldiers face in the army, their exchange is earnest and sincere, they speak to each other as equals. Two white soldiers approach to speak to the president, their exchange is less sincere, they exclaim they were at Gettysburg, the speech not the battle, they recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, interrupted with marching order they leave, the second black soldier begins recalling a passage too, “ that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. From a movie that takes place during the middle of the Civil War, one could expect more than just one lone battle scene, especially since Spielberg’s last movies that were set during a war, Saving Private Ryan and War Horse, both included some of the most epic and realistic battle scenes in cinema history. But ‘Lincoln’s battle scene is one which perfectly sets up the theme and purpose of the movie, anymore would have been unnecessary as the movie was intended to be about the passing of the thirteenth amendment and the reasons for doing so, the battle scene serves as a reminder to the viewer to the reasons for which the President Lincoln wanted to pass the Amendment, to end the war that had taken countless lives of americans. No words are spoken during the battle, this depersonalises the scene and shifts the focus onto the overall violence of the war rather than the deaths of individual soldiers. The Union flag being carried through the shot serves as a symbol of the reason and principals of what the battle is being fought for, contrasting against the violence, the cost of war. This scene gives context to the political debates to come later in the movie, the amendment is needed to be passed so that the war can end. Looking at the techniques used by the Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski, the quick cuts during the battle seem to intensify the violence, almost as if it is the camera doing the cutting down of the soldiers. When we see Lincoln in his first shot, he is sitting in a statuesque pose upon a stage with soldiers looking up at him, the lighting in the shots also help with the symbolising the President as a monument by using very dark and cold lighting and colours to give him an almost stone like appearance. Spielberg may have opted for this look as he holds a very high regard for Lincoln and would want his audience to picture him as an almost saint like figure.
The first words spoken in the entire movie are that of a black soldier, right from the off set, the movie frames black people actively fighting for their own freedom. The conversation between the black soldier and Lincoln pushes the focus on to the fight for equality for African Americans, quite literally, the film interrupts its focus on the battles in the war, pushing the violence aside and foregrounds the real problem that is deeply imbedded into the United States. Many historians and critics have criticised this movie’s portrayal of African Americans and their struggles. Arguments could be made for both; the movie shouldve had black characters feature more prominently but also that they did feature and even if they weren’t the major characters in the movie, which is mainly focused on the life of Lincoln and not of those around him, the roles that they played in the scenes in which they did appear were very important and pivotal parts of the film. For example, the two most prominent black characters throughout the movie are those that are part of the Lincoln household. The presidents valet William Slade and the first ladies dressmaker and confidant Elizabeth Keckley made constant appearances throughout the film but their actual historical impact was largely omitted from the movie, both of them were prominent activists for african american rights and abolitionists. But in spite of this, African American characters are never seen as objects of pity throughout the film, Lincoln does not want to pass the amendment because he feels sorry for the slaves but rather he does so as he believes that it is the logical and moral thing to do. This sentiment is repeated throughout the film, most notably when he talks of his studies of Euclid and his first common notion: “ two things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”, he uses this to illustrate further that he is motivated by logic and reasoning and not compassion towards african americans, as he states later in the film “ I do not know you (African American)”. Spielberg could have just as easily created scenes of Lincoln witnessing the atrocities of slavery to draw a sympathetic reaction towards him from the audience, but instead he goes for the harder option, one that is not as dramatic as the sympathetic one, but one that paints Lincoln to be a complex man. Also I think spielberg’s decision to create his Lincoln character as one that is guided by reason and logic rather than compassion and pity is a smart one as it has a certain definiteness to it, so as to say that audiences would find it harder to not like the characters because his reasoning is the correct logical one rather than the compassionate lincoln that is guided more by his beliefs, beliefs that can either be agreed or disagreed with by the audience, making him a more polarizing character, which Spielberg aims not to do with such a figure that he respects and admires so much.
By studying Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln through the lense of it being possible propaganda and by taking into account the historical context around the time in which this film was released, it can be argued that ‘Lincoln’ was indeed a piece of political propaganda produced by Steven Spielberg to push his political agenda in support of the democratic party, or at least his close friend Barack Obama. By using clever writing and storytelling and manipulating the camera, Spielberg has managed to portray abraham lincoln as a man with an undoubtable moral compass who was faced with the greatest hardships that any american had ever undertaken and by standing beside his principles unquestionably, he was able to overcome them. But it is also my view and also that of Spielberg’s himself that the role of a filmmaker is not to produce the most historically accurate depictions that we can, but rather we use our creative license to be able to use history to tell stories that captivate audiences and push to the foreground the parts of history that resonate with us the most. For this reason the negative discourse on ‘Lincoln’ in reference to the omission of the efforts of women, abolitionists and the free african american community in passing the thirteenth amendment can be excused based on the grounds that steven spielberg set out to biograph the character of Abraham Lincoln, which he did so tremendously and at the same time created a masterpiece that will for years be studied when examining the man that was Abraham Lincoln.