Early this year the Illinois State Society helped me publish my new book on Illinois history called Land of Lincoln, Thy Wondrous Story. Even though the book is a state history, and not a Lincoln book per se, because the name Lincoln is part of the official slogan of the state that forms part of my book title, many people asked me for my opinion about the movie “Lincoln” produced by Steven Spielberg.
My answer has been that I thought the production was a very well-made film with outstanding actors and superior dialogue that followed history very closely. Even so, I still could not shake my hunch that something very fundamental was missing from the movie and it took me some time to analyze more than two hours of film almost frame by frame to find out what it is. I still wonder why it was not more obvious to me at first.
There is no question that billionaire producer Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner are highly skilled professionals in their craft of film making. There is also no dispute that both men are well-known for their far left political views. Of course, that latter fact alone does not mean that they cannot make a great movie that conservatives might enjoy. I did both enjoy and admire this rare historical epic. I did not find much to fault Spielberg and Kushner for the choices they made as to what to put into the movie. But it is what they left out of the movie that I have to fault.
Spielberg and Kushner are captives of a modern secular worldview that ultimately made it impossible for them to really understand, let alone explain, 19th-Century religious motives of Lincoln and his abolitionist allies. No matter how much money they devoted to re-creatiing 19th-Century costumes and sets, they totally missed the centrality of religious faith in the 19th Century and in the issues of race and the Civil War.
In two hours and twenty minutes of film, Spielberg and Kushner completely failed to explore the central nature of Lincoln’s profound belief in God and his mastery of the King James Bible, which was his primary textbook as a self-educated young man. It is impossible to understand the moral passion of abolitionists without understanding the central role of faith in the lives of 19th-Century Americans both north and south and both black and white.
There are only two rare hints of that important central role in just about three scenes of a more than two-hour movie with only three direct mentions of God. None of those are in the dialogue of actor Daniel Day Lewis, who otherwise did such a fine job of making Lincoln come to life. We see Lincoln the legal analyst that tells jokes and suffers the burden of a war-time leader. But we never see him on his knees asking for God's help to bear his burdens which he surely did.
The first glancing reference to God is a negative one during the first day of debate over the 13th Amendment between Copperhead Rep. Fernando Wood (D-NY) and Radical Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA). Wood declares that “God did not make Negroes equal to white people” and Stevens counters that slavery itself is counter to God’s law. Those are about the only references to God in more than two hours. That glaring omission is almost like making a history of World War II and leaving out any reference to the evil of Nazi Germany.
Spielberg and Kushner seemed incapable of understanding how Lincoln's core belief in God, and not just some warm and fuzzy modern secular notion of “equality,’ drove the passion of Lincoln to put an end to slavery. But in the Kushner screenplay, a viewer would think that Lincoln’s belief in equality was not equality in the eyes of God, which it most definitely was.
Instead, Kushner writes a scene where Lincoln muses with two telegraph operators that people are equal because Euclidian geometry taught the self-evident truth that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” What an incredible example of missing the point of Lincoln’s life. Even if Lincoln once said that, he certainly knew people are not mere things and their inalienable rights derive from their special place as creatures of God. That was what was most important to Lincoln even if he was not always one hundred percent for abolition, but came to the logic of that position late in his first term as president.
Here too, because Spielberg had to cut down the scope of the movie to January 1865, he did not have time to track the complex evolution of Lincoln from merely defending the Missouri Compromise and opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 to his final position of outright opposition to all slavery everywhere. That would have been a very interesting story and was a far more important in the growth of Lincoln’s intellect than a superficial reference to Euclid to explain Lincoln’s drive for equality.
The only other confusing thing about the end of the Lincoln movie is the apparent inability of Spielberg to decide on what final scene would be most important and so he offers several dramatic “final scenes” with the last one a flashback from after Lincoln’s death on April 16 to his second Inaugural Address more than a month before on March 4. None of these scenes were wrong, but it was just confusing to see so many of them. It was in one of those final scenes that Lincoln makes his only oblique reference to his faith when he tells Mary during a carriage ride that after they leave The White House, he would like to visit the Holy Land and Jerusalem.
Its just a shame that Spielberg created such a superior film but still missed the story of Lincoln's faith that was so central to his life and legacy.