'Lincoln' Movie Review: 10 Ways It Distorts History


Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is sailing through awards season with a tremendous amount of success and is about to make a big push for Oscar gold at the Academy Awards ceremony.

The highly-acclaimed film is the most ambitious and historically accurate depiction of President Abraham Lincoln ever attempted, and its service to honoring and humanizing the man's memory will no doubt earn it a place in middle and high school curricula for years to come.

Despite its praise and accuracy, though, historians can pick out a few areas where certain liberties were taken. Here are some of them.

1. Soldiers probably never recited the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln

The beginning of the film depicts two Union soldiers, one white and one black, reciting the Gettysburg Address to Abraham Lincoln while he is making a visit to the troops. Though a touching scene that helps emphasize the devotion of Union soldiers to their cause, there is almost no chance that the speech was memorized by anyone. The speech itself did not achieve the type of great acclaim it holds today until after Lincoln's death.

2. President Lincoln was not known for pulling speeches out of his top hat

A scene in the film depicts Lincoln at a flag-raising ceremony, pulling his short speech out of his top hat. As president, Lincoln would have had secretaries with him and would not have committed such a faux pas. That said, young country lawyer Abraham Lincoln was known to keep his notes in the lining of his hat.

3. Mary Todd Lincoln did not attend meetings of the U.S. House of Representatives

Contrary to Sally Field's portrayal, the first lady did not keep an eye on Thaddeus Stevens from the House gallery. While Mrs. Lincoln did have a keen political mind and a combative relationship with Stevens, it would have been highly unusual for the first lady to watch the House's proceedings.

4. Mrs. Lincoln would have never publicly berated Thaddeus Stevens

While the first lady did indeed have some qualms with Thaddeus Stevens and his investigations into her spending habits, she would have never launched a verbal attack on him at a White House function as she does in the movie. It would have been too much of an embarrassment to both Stevens and her husband.

5. Black soldiers did not greet the Confederate peace commissioners 

When CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens and the rest of the Confederate delegation arrived in Union territory, they were not greeted by a contingent of black soldiers. This would have been seen as an overt diplomatic faux pas that would have threatened any chance of peace talks. The scene did help illustrate the fact, however, that over 200,000 black soldiers fought to preserve the Union.

6. The film took some liberties with the final vote tally on the amendment

And, boy, are some people incensed. Congressman Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) wrote an official letter to Steven Spielberg expressing how insulted he was that the film portrayed two Connecticut representatives voting Nay on the amendment to abolish slavery.

Courtney pulled up the official congressional record to point out that all four members of Connecticut's delegation voted in favor of the amendment. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has since shot back, trying to remind the Congressman that it is just a movie.

7. Speaking of the House of Representatives and its debate, Thaddeus Stevens never called a congressman a fatuous nincompoop during debate

The same rules that governed the House then govern it today: Members are not allowed to directly address each other during debate. They have to address the Speaker, who would have surely ruled the radical Republican out of line if he called someone a nincompoop. That said, Stevens certainly did have quite a sharp wit, which comes through in certain scenes.

8. The Union did not print Abraham Lincoln's image on any currency until after he died

While Lincoln was conversing with the political operatives he employed, James Spader's character comments that he couldn't bribe undecided Congressmen to vote yes because so many 50-cent pieces had Lincoln's face on them. In reality, Abraham Lincoln did not appear on any currency until 1869, where his face began an 11-year stint residing on the $100 bill.

9. Lincoln probably never even talked to these political fixers, especially not about bribes

While Lincoln's political skills and his all-out attempt to get the amendment passed were real, he probably never met directly with the political operates his administration employed. If he did, bribes were almost surely never discussed. Part of the man's political genius would have ensured he resisted exposing himself too much to the mud of politics.

10. Lincoln did not die in a nightgown

The last five minutes of Spielberg's Lincoln are the worst five minutes of the film. It could have ended early, but he wanted to show the death and include the candle-lit second inaugural address.

The death scene itself is inaccurate. Daniel Day-Lewis is shown in a nightgown, lying in a hunched position on the bed. In reality, he was nude when he died, as doctors had removed the clothes to inspect his wounds and proceeded to cover him in a blanket. Also, as a giant man standing tall at 6'4," he was diagonally set down on the tiny bed.

Most of these inaccuracies are done to help exhibit things and paint a better, larger picture of what happened. Despite the inaccuracies, no other film has ever captured the sixteenth president as clearly as Lincoln has.

In spite of the errors, the movie presents an excellent history lesson for all.