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UW experts weigh in on Lincoln as movie opens in theaters

November 13, 2012

Photo: Still from Lincoln movie

Two UW–Madison faculty members discuss the upcoming release of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which opens Friday, Nov. 16. Daniel Day-Lewis, shown above, plays Abraham Lincoln in the film.

Photo: DreamWorks 

President Abraham Lincoln is more monument than man to many Americans, with his image printed on our currency and seated atop Bascom Hill, among other places.

On Friday, director Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” with Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, opens in theaters.

UW-Madison experts discussed the depiction of presidents in the movies, what made Lincoln a great president and what today’s leaders could learn from him.

Photo: Steven Kantrowitz


Stephen Kantrowitz, professor of history and an expert on the Civil War and slavery, says Lincoln inherited the worst crisis in the republic’s history. He confronted it with pragmatism and occasionally with ruthlessness, Kantrowitz says, but he never lost sight of his fundamental goal: to preserve the republic without conceding its future to slavery. 

What was the most important moment of Lincoln’s presidency? 

The most important moment of Lincoln’s presidency was Jan. 1, 1863, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. When the war began, less than two years earlier, Lincoln sought only to suppress the rebellion and return the nation to its 1860 status quo. He insisted that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it currently existed. But during 1861 and 1862, American slaves inserted themselves into the war, treating the Union as an army of liberation and making themselves useful to it as laborers, servants and spies. Union soldiers, officers and lawmakers came to realize every liberated slave constituted a loss to the Confederacy, and a gain to the Union. Soon Lincoln, too, recognized that events had overtaken his earlier understanding of the war. With the Emancipation Proclamation, he acknowledged that the war to save the Union had also become a war of emancipation.  

How did he change the office of the president? 

The Civil War, much more than Lincoln, changed the presidency and the rest of the federal government, as the tiny bureaucracy and army of 1860 swelled to wage a continental war of unprecedented complexity and bloodshed. 

What lessons could today’s leaders learn from him? 

Lincoln learned from experience and grew while in office. Born and raised in a white supremacist society, he believed as late as the fall of 1862 that whites and blacks could not live together as equals and that, if freed en masse, blacks would have to depart the United States. But by the end of his life he came to understand the wartime struggles of slaves and free blacks as morally equivalent to those of the American Revolution, and to imagine a place for African-Americans as equal citizens of the republic. He did not confuse clarity of purpose with rigidity of outlook.

What are some misconceptions about Lincoln that prevail today? 

Lincoln is frequently painted as a saint or a demon, the visionary who freed the slaves and saved the Union or the racist who ruled as a tyrant. These portraits tell us more about ourselves than about him. 


Photo: Jeff Smith


Jeff Smith, professor of film and an expert on post-war American cinema, says that every few years there’s a cluster of films about presidents, real or fictional. This fall, there is Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and “Hyde Park on Hudson,” with Bill Murray playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Is there a president who ought to have been profiled, but hasn’t yet?

 The big surprise is that there has been no biopic about George Washington. If Lincoln does well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jon Meacham’s book, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” get optioned. Jackson’s persona lends itself to screen treatment.  And I have no doubt that Barack Obama will someday be profiled — he has made history, after all.

Which film does the best job of portraying an American president?

“Young Mr. Lincoln,” (starring Henry Fonda). Interestingly, there are similarities between that film and the new Spielberg movie. Both are snapshots of a compressed period of time in Lincoln’s life. The new movie focuses on the passage of the 13th amendment. The old film, directed by John Ford, has a murder trial at its center: Lincoln’s first real case as a lawyer in Springfield, Ill. In that sense, they are not traditional biopics.

Were you surprised to hear Steven Spielberg was making a film about Lincoln?

Well, we do think of Spielberg as Mr. Blockbuster. So at first I thought: bad idea.  Spielberg often takes heat for sentimentalizing American institutions, and he’s gotten critical backlash for his treatment of race, particularly in “Amistad” and “The Color Purple.” But when I heard Tony Kushner was writing the screenplay, I thought I’d withold judgment. I liked their previous film collaboration, “Munich,” and in fact I talk about that film a lot in my classes. Also, Spielberg is the ultimate craftsman — so the film is bound to be beautifully shot.

Are you planning to see “Lincoln?”

I am planning to see “Lincoln.” My wife wants to see Daniel Day-Lewis. Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote “Team of Rivals,” the book that inspired the film, said, “No one ever thought Abraham Lincoln was sexy, until Daniel Day-Lewis signed on to play him.”

(Interviews by Käri Knutson and Mary Ellen Gabriel.)