12/06/2012 09:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2012

Can A Movie About Lincoln Capture The Truth About The 16th President?

In her biography, "Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts an anecdote that at first seems impossible to link to a man who never left the United States. In 1908, Leo Tolstoy, by then a famous writer, traveled to what he called a “wild and remote” part of the North Caucasus, a tribal region in Russia between the Caspian and Baltic Seas. On the request of a local chief, Tolstoy told a gathered group there stories of the great men of history. As he wound to a close, the chief demanded that he not forget the “greatest general and greatest ruler of the world,” Abraham Lincoln. Taken aback, Tolstoy obliged, and for his efforts was presented with the gift of an Arabian horse, as well as another request: could he find them a photograph of Lincoln?

“This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become,” the Russian novelist later told a writer for New York World, a now defunct newspaper. “We are still too near to his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do.”

Tolstoy, no surprise, was onto something. In 2012, a man gone more than a century seemed to be everywhere, and up to every task — whether it was slaying the undead in Seth Grahame-Smith’s "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," arguing with Mary Todd on Saturday Night Live, hawking the sleep medication Rozerem, or gazing out from the October cover of Newsweek.

Why the sudden return? James Cornelius, who curates the collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., points out that our 16th president never actually went away. Lincoln’s reputation for what Cornelius calls “largely good things: courage, determination, standing up for what’s right,” as well as his “tremendous ability to look like this ambling, slow-talking, maybe even slow-witted guy,” caught the eye of marketers as soon as he took office. Today, no country in the world makes more Lincoln books and tchotchkes than China, where the president’s anti-secessionist views align well with the government’s policy on Tibet. The steady stream of Lincoln paraphernalia grows to flood levels around the times of anniversaries, such as the 150th of the Gettysburg Address, which falls next year. (Because, as Cornelius puts it, “everyone loves round numbers.”)

This year, there is the added momentum of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which, for its reach and biographical faithfulness, could be considered the president’s most popular public appearance. As of its November opening day, more people watched the movie’s London-born star, Daniel Day-Lewis, play Lincoln, than saw or heard the real Lincoln in his lifetime. This week, Disney announced a rush order of additional prints to meet what the Associated Press called “unexpected demands” in Alaska.

History lessons taught in movie theaters don’t usually impress academics, but Spielberg’s vision is “all anybody in Lincoln scholarship is talking about,” according to Harold Holzer, a Lincoln expert whom Tony Kushner consulted with for the Lincoln script. Holzer distills his colleagues’ reactions to a pair of questions: “Did you like it, or did you love it?” Goodwin, who brought Holzer to Spielberg’s attention after her book prompted the director to make the film,
enthused to The Huffington Post that watching Day-Lewis in the title role was akin to “seeing this man I lived with for 10 years wander around in front of everyone.”

By choosing to telescope onto the president's maneuvering of the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery on U.S. soil., the movie redirects Lincoln’s saintly mythology closer to reality, says historian Richard Norton Smith.

“It illustrates Lincoln’s genius as a politician, both as the great public advocate and as a behind-the-scenes wire puller who was perfectly willing to trail his garments in the dust if that’s what it takes to get what he knows to be right,” Norton Smith told The Huffington Post in a phone interview.

Holzer sets this “teachable moment” apart from other “round number” occasions, aided as it is by a blockbuster hit. For the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, in 2009, publishers sent a bounty of books to market, and mostly only scholars noticed. This year, the crop includes offerings for kids, by authors as diverse in inclination as Holzer himself (whom Disney commissioned to write a young adult companion book to the movie) and right-wing hot head Bill O’Reilly. Adult offerings also range, from fictional thrillers such as the period mystery The Lincoln Conspiracy, by The Huffington Post’s own Timothy L. O’Brien, to nonfiction titles with the basic catholic pitch of "Lincoln Plus Anything Else" (for instance, "Lincoln And Medicine," and "Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend Leonard Swett," both released the same month as the movie).

Norton Smith rattles off a list of past Lincolns who’ve captured the public imagination: “Racist Lincoln,” “Dictator Lincoln” (both sprung from scholarship on the president’s changing views toward slavery), “Brokeback Lincoln” and “Prozac Lincoln.” As for naming Day-Lewis’, he has a grander title: “the Lincoln for our generation.”

“I can’t tell you how many depictions I’ve seen. No one has ever communicated as Daniel Day-Lewis did a sense after seeing him for two-and-a-half hours that this is what it would have been like to be in the presence of Abraham Lincoln.”



Portraits Of Lincoln Impersonators