It’s True Because It Works: Historical Storytelling in Lincoln

Abraham LincolnSteven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) may seem at first glance a straightforward historical film, narrating how President Abraham Lincoln ensured the liberation of the slaves at the end of the American Civil War. But closer examination of the characterisation of this great president, impeccably played by Daniel Day-Lewis, reveals a script that forces us to challenge the film’s own narrative and intentions, that undermines, in a subtle way, its claim to depict reality.

It is in Lincoln’s use of stories that we see this film turn and examine itself.

Art as politics in Lincoln

Lincoln is a film that constantly demonstrates the titular president’s well-known habit of telling stories. He does it in public speeches, in meetings with his cabinet, and in quiet moments with his family and staff. It is a powerful tool that he uses to win people over emotionally, both to himself as a folksy storyteller, and to the causes he believes in.

In itself this is a straightforward demonstration of the relationship of art and politics. Though the storytelling here is conversational, it is also an art form, just as much as novel writing or the film’s own script. These are carefully structured anecdotes, designed to stir and to intrigue. They remind us that art is often used to advance political causes, that it crosses the private and public spheres and is not ‘just entertainment’ as some would have us believe. Like the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, Lincoln opens up the relationship between politics and art.

Abraham LincolnDemocrats and demagogues – rehabilitating a form

Grand political storytelling has often been a tool of those reaching for oppressive power. The European dictators of the 1920s and 1930s understood its power, using history, cinema and speeches to shift public perceptions of reality. Theirs was a simple story of ‘ordinary’ people brought low by Communists, homosexuals and Jews, in which outsiders were a threat to the common good and they themselves presented the possibility of salvation. As taught in the most basic story writing class, there were heroes, villains and conflict, and people lapped it up.

In Lincoln, Spielberg and his collaborators go some way towards rehabilitating this political tool. While the president’s use of stories is arguably manipulative, and clearly frustrating to some of his colleagues, it is used not for personal aggrandisement or scapegoating but to provide calm, comfort and eventually liberty. He seeks to sooth rather than stoke passions, to create bonds of insight into the lives of others rather than harsh divisions between in-groups and out-groups.

This is political storytelling used for good.

Truth vs story

But by featuring Lincoln’s stories, as well as a scene at the theatre near the end (fortunately not the one you might have expected), the film draws attention to the fact that stories are not truth. That they are structures that we place around reality to make a point, to shape the way others understand that reality.

Abraham LincolnIt therefore challenges us to ask – what is this story trying to achieve? What role does the film of Lincoln seek to play in the political landscape?

Once we reach this point it’s easy to see links between Lincoln the character’s storytelling and that of Lincoln the film. Like the man, the film makes a point about the balance of pragmatism and idealism. It suggests that manipulation of the political system is permissible if it is aimed towards the right goals, in this case the liberation of America’s black population. But it also warns against the tyranny that comes when one group seeks to protect its own freedoms and norms at the cost of others. In an era when civil rights battles are being fought over gay marriage and freedom of speech in the era of terror, these are familiar though important concerns.

But Lincoln also points out that what is popular will not always be right, warning against the tyranny of the masses. It is on this basis that the subtle manipulations of the gentle storyteller can be considered justified. If people are misguided then does a great man such as Abraham Lincoln not have the right to pull out the same tools as the oppressors themselves, to manipulate his fellow politicians into serving the public good?

Lincoln is not a raw slice of the past. Like any history it is an act of storytelling, of fitting the facts into a structure that serves modern needs and understandings. But at least it has the decency, unlike some other historical epics, to draw attention to this fact.


Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at

6 thoughts on “It’s True Because It Works: Historical Storytelling in Lincoln

  1. Pingback: Film as thesis: 3 Depictions of the Nature of History - CURNBLOG

  2. I never really considered how Lincoln as storyteller affected the way we might view the story being told to us by the movie itself. After reading your essay, Andrew, I wonder why that thought never occurred to me. As most films about him have highlighted, Lincoln relied on anecdote, often fanciful anecdote, when making his arguments. It would seem likely that a biographical film might take similar liberties. Of course, any historical film takes liberties, but there does seem to be something of a “tall tale” quality in most mainstream stories about Lincoln. (Except Vampire Hunter — that one is wholly factual.)

    I tend to enjoy movies about storytellers. Big Fish, Fried Green Tomatoes, and especially Usual Suspects, are three movies where the stories being created for onscreen characters can color the way we view the broader story of the film. I think you make a good case that Lincoln does that too.

    • It was only on reflection afterwards that it occurred to me. It’s more subtle in this theme than something like The Usual Suspects, but obviously brings out the historical element in a way that doesn’t. There’s an interesting film to be made I think in exploring this theme more explicitly, intertwining depictions of the stories he told with the stories about his life, but then I’m no film-maker so I’ll have to hope someone else also has that idea.

  3. Andrew, I am pleased to see an intelligent and thoughtful appraisal of this film. As you know, it has had mixed reviews, and it is an emotional subject for Americans to criticise. I haven’t seen it (yet) but may well do so, after reading your thoughts.
    I have been interested in the US Civil War since I was a young boy, and like many, saw the Confederates as the side with justification to start the war against the Federal Government. Some of Lincoln’s own past, and personal attitude to slavery is often overlooked, and in the light of victory, the victors write the history, as they say. I think it is a gross oversimplification to credit the issue of slavery with the reason that both sides fought this war. It was an issue, that is undeniable, but one of many. Here is something I wrote, on a different blog.
    ‘The Confederacy has interested me since I was very young. Not because it supported slavery, as this is an often-quoted, and far too simplistic description of the reason for its formation. It was because it was the underdog, and started a war it could never hope to win, to prove a point, and to defend a principle. The right of a State to govern itself, free from Federal control, is a more pertinent explanation of the real reason behind this rebellion. The army that fought for the Confederacy was a volunteer force for the great part, and comprised predominantly of very poor men, from rural backgrounds. They could never hope to own anything to speak of, let alone a slave, yet they were prepared to die in their thousands, for what they believed was a ‘Good Cause’.’
    I take your point about modern issues in state politics, but this was a very long time ago…
    Back to the film! Excellent review, and thanks for posting it.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

    • Pete, if you’re interested in the Civil War and you haven’t seen it already then I really recommend Ken Burns’s documentary series on the subject. It’s about twenty years old now, but remains an example of how great TV documentary making can be – informative and incredibly moving.

      I’ve always found civil wars particularly fascinating because of the difficult tangling of principles and power-plays, love and hate that they bring out. As you’ve highlighted, the American Civil War was about more than slavery, but as the film of Lincoln makes clear, there was no addressing states’ rights without addressing the rights of individuals in those states, and in particular the rights of those held in bondage.

      • Thanks Andrew. I have the Ken Burns set on DVD, and used to have the VHS! Landmark TV indeed. It was as you say, the problem of states’ rights intertwined with the slavery issue. I will look forward to seeing how that is addressed in this film.
        Best wishes, Pete.

Leave a Reply