by Tom Leonard Daily Mail
The film currently taking America by storm begins with a black Union cavalryman pausing from the slaughter of the Civil War to recite the Gettysburg Address by heart as the president who gave it trudges past through the mud.
And it ends with Abraham Lincoln in quiet triumph, his work done in seeing slavery banned throughout the nation, and the Confederacy of the American South brought to its knees.
Breaking off from a discussion with colleagues about giving blacks the vote, Uncle Abe – played by Daniel Day-Lewis – heads off to a night at the theatre with Mrs Lincoln, and a fateful encounter with assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s sweeping epic about the 16th President of America’s triumph over slavery, won a commanding 12 Oscar nominations last week and is leading the field for this year’s Academy Awards, with Day-Lewis hotly tipped for the best actor accolade.
Weaned – as every U.S. schoolchild is – on the notion of Lincoln as a towering, morally spotless leader in America’s history, the Oscar grandees are unlikely to vote against it: it seems almost treasonous to stand in the way of this lump-in-the-throat, desperately worthy celebration of the man who has been dubbed the ‘Great Emancipator’.
Unfortunately, say historians, its portrayal of America’s most revered president is about as accurate as the notion that an ordinary soldier could have recited the Gettysburg Address from memory when the speech only became famous in the 20th century.
Not only, they say, has Spielberg’s lengthy drama grossly exaggerated Lincoln’s role in ending slavery, but it has also glossed over the president’s rather less likeable qualities.
Very definitely a man of his times, say historians, Lincoln was – certainly by today’s standards – a racist who used the N-word liberally, who believed that whites were superior to blacks and who, having jumped on the emancipation bandwagon rather late in the day, wanted to pack the freed slaves off to hard new lives in plantations abroad.
To say you might not pick up on any of this from the almost saintly portrayal in the film is putting it mildly. Critics have been mesmerised by Day-Lewis’s compelling performance. Meanwhile, political commentators have even dared hope the film might restore Americans’ shattered confidence in their political leaders.
The film is based on a best-selling biography, Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which Barack Obama has revealed he read during his first term as president.
Spielberg bought the film rights to the book before it had even been finished, and handed it to a screenwriter, Tony Kushner, who considers Lincoln to be the ‘greatest democratic leader in the world’.
It focuses on just four weeks near the end of Lincoln’s life when, in January 1865, he twisted arms and used underhand political tactics to persuade Congress to approve the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thereby formally abolishing slavery across the nation.
Both Spielberg and his screenwriter have insisted this film is the definitive account of the defeat of slavery. ‘We were enormously accurate,’ said Kushner.
‘What we’re describing absolutely happened.’
Sadly, historians have been less impressed than the critics by such assurances. One after another has risked breaking step with national sentiment by declaring that Lincoln wasn’t quite the great liberator after all.