Previously by Mark Thornton: Why I’m a Raging Optimist
Steven Spielberg's epic movie Lincoln is truly a masterpiece. As an historical drama it portrays Lincoln in the final months of his life and the final months of the Civil War. More than anything, it shows Lincoln attempting — against all odds — to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery.
One striking feature of the movie is that many of the characters look very much like the people they portray. This is particularly true of Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), David Strathairn (William Seward), and Jackie Earle Haley (Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens).
The acting is tremendous. Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius. The costumes and cinematography are great. This movie is going to receive a bucket full of Oscar nominations and will probably win numerous awards. In terms of stars, awards, ticket sales etc. this movie may even approach the stardom of another movie set in the same historical timeframe, Gone with the Wind.
The movie is a little long at 2 hours and 25 minutes, but it does not seem drag. The ending, where Lincoln is assassinated and dies was unnecessary and at first seemed out of place with the rest of the movie. I was very surprised to learn that the budget of the movie with all the star actors was only $65 million as I was expecting it to cost more than $200 million. It has already earned more than $90 million in the first month as we head into the Holiday and Oscar seasons. The showing I went to was completely sold out, something that happens to me about once a decade.
Despite the great acting, scenery, resemblances, etc. it is most important that readers know that the movie itself is fiction. The story you see is made up. It never happened just as "Scarlett" never slapped "Ashley Wilkes" because Gone with the Wind was an historical fiction.
Historical dramas are almost by necessity fictional, otherwise they would be documentaries and even documentaries can contain fiction and bias. When you are watching, for example, western movies that portray Indians and the US Cavalry, you are not watching what actually happened. You are seeing a fictional, biased account that portrays what the entrepreneur-producer thinks you want to see.
Reality is different. In fact, reality is often very different. The truth is that with respect to sagas like the Indians vs. the US Cavalry, reality was probably closer to F Troop than John Wayne movies like Fort Apache or Horse Soldiers. Officers were often incompetent, soldiers were chronically lazy and corrupt and most Indian tribes were naturally cooperative as long as their property rights were respected.
With Lincoln, of course Abraham Lincoln was president during the American Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln was the first lady, they had sons, etc. All the supporting cast did exist including all the politicians, cabinet members, generals, etc. The 13th amendment to the Constitution banning slavery did pass, Lincoln was assassinated, and the Union did defeat the Confederacy.
It is also true that Lincoln did work to promote the passage of the 13th amendment. However, as Thomas DiLorenzo has shown, Lincoln worked for the passage of the 13th amendment in 1861 That 13th amendment would have banned the federal government from interfering with states that permitted slavery if it has been ratified. Furthermore, he shows that there is no hard evidence that Lincoln worked for the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865 which prohibited slavery in all states.
As you can see, the real version of events would not have made for a good movie. In fact, the real Lincoln would not make for any kind of pleasant movie. He was a loser politician married to a crazy woman, who unexpectedly found success because the nation splintered into four political parties, handing him the election.
Lincoln was famous for telling people what they wanted to hear. He would often claim to support one position on an issue to one group of people and claim to support the opposite position to another group of people. He was the classic flip-flopper often supporting numerous positions on an issue over his political career. No good material for a movie here.
That is why they were forced to rely on Doris Kearns-Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, and to even use that book selectively as the basis of the movie. Kearns-Goodwin is an admitted plagiarist who has stolen material from three books. I'm not going to buy one of her books to find out what "she wrote," but it would make sense that Spielberg would rely on her. She has made a career out of making the leading scoundrels of American history look very good.
In this case, they had to find not just fiction, but Harry Houdini style fiction. The suffering of the American people, North and South, during Lincoln's time in office was unimaginable. He brought war, death, destruction and suffering to America on a level never seen before or since. Only the freeing of the slaves could wash away his sins, so that is the message of the movie. I believe that they included the assassination and death scenes in order to drive home the "paying for sins" aspect. With their bloodlust, taste for deception, and desire for empire, the Neocons are going to love this movie.
If prefer the truth to fiction then you should order a copy of Thomas DiLorenzo's book The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. The Lincoln movie is nothing like this book.
Mark Thornton [send him mail] is a senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and is the book review editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is the author of The Economics of Prohibition, coauthor of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, and the editor of The Quotable Mises, The Bastiat Collection, and An Essay on Economic Theory. He has written about government intervention in the movie industries. He has also reviewed Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and previewed Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He has also reviewed Bourne Ultimatum.