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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln isn't a biographical chronicle of Abraham Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) life in office but rather a political drama about the passing of the 13th Amendment and the end of the Civil War. The most sensitive issues in the movie are its depiction of war (severed limbs and bloody battlefields filled with dead soldiers are seen) and occasional strong language, including many era-accurate (but hard to hear today) racial epithets. But overall, the violence is much tamer than in war movies like Saving Private Ryan or Glory, and Lincoln is an educational, entertaining drama that even some mature 5th graders might be ready to handle, if they watch with their parents. (That said, it does move somewhat slowly, so kids hooked on fast-paced entertainment may not be interested.)
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What's the story?
It's 1865. President Abraham LINCOLN (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been reelected, and it's clear that the Confederacy isn't likely to survive another spring in the ongoing Civil War. But before Lincoln can embrace the likelihood of the South's surrender, he wants -- seemingly more than anything -- to pass the 13th Amendment and definitively outlaw slavery in the entire Union. With the help of Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln hires three political negotiators (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes) to convince at least 20 of the House of Representatives' Democrats (who staunchly oppose the amendment) to vote for the bill (usually in exchange for patronage positions). Meanwhile, in his personal life, Lincoln faces more issues of compromise and sacrifice with his emotional wife, Mary (Sally Field), and his desperate-to-enlist son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
Is it any good?
There's no better film to watch to pay witness to how even our country's greatest historical leaders still had to make quid pro quo overtures across party lines to move forward. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's award-winning book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln is more about the political intrigue of Lincoln's final months than a "biopic" about his personal life. Day-Lewis' performance is a brilliant character study of a legendary man. Unlike the over-the-top characters Day-Lewis played in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, his President Lincoln is an introspective man who tells stories that sound like parables and who exudes a powerful dignity, even in silence. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Field makes a passionate case for the First Lady's instability, stemming from the overwhelming grief of losing son Willie.
But one of the most startling performances in the film, which is so eloquently scripted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, is courtesy of Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens. The uncompromising abolitionist congressman wants complete racial equality -- not just the legal extinction of slavery -- but even he knows that change sometimes comes in baby steps, not revolution.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why President Lincoln is still considered one of the most influential presidents of all time. How does the movie's depiction of President Lincoln compare to what you know or have learned about him? Did anything surprise you about his political or personal life?
What does the movie tell us about how politics have changed since the 1860s? Do politicians still have to work together and make compromises, even if they fundamentally disagree? What is the continued relevance of the 13th Amendment?
How closely do you think Lincoln adheres to history? How many liberties with the facts do you think a movie like this can take? Why might filmmakers decide to do that?
How does Mary Todd Lincoln's emotional fragility -- in no small part spurred by the fear of one of her remaining sons going to fight in the war that her husband considers necessary -- impact Lincoln's situation?
- In theaters: November 9, 2012
- On DVD or streaming: March 26, 2013
- Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Studio: DreamWorks
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Character strengths: Courage, Humility, Integrity, Perseverance
- Run time: 150 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award, Golden Globe
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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