Monday, 28 September 2015

Lincoln – A Film Review about a Hero’s Journey

Lincoln – A film review about a hero’s journey

Fig 1. Lincoln Poster (2012)

 Lincoln (2012) was produced by Stephen Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Memoirs of a Geisha) and takes place right after Abraham Lincolns (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) second election as President of the United States in the midst of the American Civil War. The films plot revolves around Lincoln’s goal to abolish slavery in America. This review sees the film from the angle of the concept called “The Hero’s Journey” and follows Lincoln’s path over the three acts of separation, initiation and return.

 Act one starts with the call to adventure in which the hero, Abraham Lincoln whilst speaking to two black soldiers establishes his ambition to the audience to end the war and slavery in the United States of America, his compassion is also brilliantly portrayed in his sad smile and caring sense of humour.

 The refusal of the call, which, in this case, is both his wife Mary and the United States Senate, which both reject the idea for a vote on the 13th amendment as the last one failed during his early presidency which may damage his relationship with his people. His Secretary of Estate Seward perfectly portrays his peer’s views when he says: “Why tarnish your invaluable lustre with a battle in the house that is sure of defeat?” Lincoln softly smiles when confronted with this truth and tells Steward “I like our chances now”.

 Supernatural aid comes to Lincoln early on in the form of a dream in which he is alone, standing on top of a ship which is going at god like speed. Upon telling his wife Mary she suggests that rather it being literally a ship it means that he is on his own on his quest for the 13th amendment and refers to how it could mean he must face this challenge alone and time is of the essence.

 Crossing the threshold could be portrayed as visits Preston Blair’s house where he attempts to gain the full support of his own party for the amendment he is however forced to also set a peace offer to the Confederates in motion to ensure the support. As the support of most of the senate for the 13th amendment on both sides revolves around ending the war this also creates a time frame around the success of passing the bill, if the war ends the bill will fail to pass.

 The next hurdle encountered is the belly of the whale which takes place in his own war cabinet whom challenges him and his plans: “Why focus on the nation’s attention on slavery when the war is almost over?” further showing the American nations relationship to the amendment and further portrays the message of how important it is for Lincoln to get the amendment passed during the next vote.

 Lincoln’s road of trials is largely dealt with largely in congress as they express their objections over the abolishment. The mood of the people is also made clear to Lincoln whilst talking to Mr and Mrs Jolly as they say they will only support the abolishment if it ends the war else they would prefer to keep their slaves in chains. In this sense the road of trials could be considered the entire political environment in the USA that Lincoln is challenged with.

 The goddess is introduced in the form of Thaddeus Stevens before he meets up with Lincoln officially for the first time, it is clear that Thaddeus’s views on equality are far ahead of his time and closer to what we would consider today as true equality. His attitude and body language present him as a man of enormous respect and experience and an almost divine like figure in comparison to his peers. Even Stevens’s use of language portrays him as a man of wisdom and an almost divine purpose, for example in the congress he states during a heated debate he replies loudly and bluntly to a racist remark from a peer: “What violates natural law? Slavery and you, Pendleton, you insult god! You unnatural noise!” which causes the whole room to at first fall silent as he speaks then erupt in cheer.

 When Lincoln finally gets to meet the goddess, his aim is to get Stevens support and to tone down his views in front of the senate as Stevens intends to push for full equality, the “negro vote” and much more, Stevens also shows his contempt for the evil in the people that voted for him when he says “Shit on the people, I don’t give a damn what they’re ready for” and that “their inner compass which should direct the soul to true justice has ossified in white men and women.” Showing his morality objections for the views of the people that are politically below him.

Fig 2. The Goddess (2012)

 After dealing with the senate, Lincoln comes home to his wife who wants to talk him out of letting their oldest son Robert go to fight in the war. She takes on the form of the temptress while she pleads for Lincoln to keep their son out of the war. This is further complicated as Robert himself is embarrassed that his own father enlisted every able man to join the war but keeps his own son safe far from the front lines. Lincoln’s personality is brilliantly portrayed as he tells his wife in a loud and tearful voice “I beg you, for once, try to take the liberal and not the selfish point of view” after which she threatens him that he has to answer to her if Robert gets killed. Lincoln replies “You alone may lighten this burden, or render it intolerable” which ends the argument.

 The atonement with the father is handled quickly in Lincoln as he describes that he has his passion for ending slavery from his father. Whilst describing his upbringing he states “He wasn’t a kind man, but there was a rough, moral urge for fairness. I learned that from him”.

 The apotheosis occurs as Stevens holds back his true opinion when asked outright about his view on equality. Stevens states before the senate that he does not believe in in true equality but only equality before the law. When one of his radical piers approaches him in disgust asking him if there is nothing he wouldn’t say Stevens replies “to end slavery? No, it seems that there really isn’t anything I wouldn’t say”.

 The ultimate boon occurs on the day of the vote. During this scene the senate indeed votes to approve the abolishment of slavery in which the scene erupts into song and celebration in the entire city of Washington. Many tearful moments are shed amongst the main characters and Lincoln embraces his son in a bath of evening sunlight, perhaps a visual metaphor for the brighter times ahead.

Fig 3. The day of the vote (2012)

 Rescue from without occurs during the vote when Senator Yeaman decides to vote yes in spite of him always being reserved and cautious on what freeing the slaves would mean for America. When his turn to vote arrives he is visibly conflicted and whispers to himself “My vote ties us” perhaps in reference to the weight of the decision he was making. Once he votes yes the senate erupts in a mix of applause and jeers as others sit in disbelief in Yeaman’s decision, it is clear from this point that the vote will be won.

 The refusal of return is met with the south and Lincoln being unable to come to terms and end the war under over the south's objections to the new amendment and Lincoln’s refusal to allow any southern states to keep oppressing their people causing one of the most bloody wars in history to continue raging on, Lincoln is visibly distressed by these events.

 Two months after the amendment has passed the war inevitably ends and Lincoln becomes master of two worlds by being president over the whole of America as Jefferson Davis surrenders and retreats on a white horse. Lincoln is now master of the slave south and the free north and free himself to reform the nation. Though it has taken its toll on him, Grant, Lincolns General says to him “It has only been a year since we last met but to the eye you appear 10 years older”.

 Magic flight translates well as the scene were Mary and Lincoln ride in a carriage after the war is over and the reconstruction has begun, dreaming of better times and future holidays now that they don’t have to worry about war anymore. Lincoln holds her hand and begs Mary “You must try to be happier (…) we’ve been miserable for so long” the weight of the struggle seems visibility lifted on Lincolns face.

 Lincolns crossing the return threshold occurs when he walks from the cabinet to the place of his assassination, any audience that know the history of Lincoln knows what is coming and combined with the body language and his last words for the whole film: “I guess it’s time to go, though I’d rather stay” while smiling and leaving his friends for the last time and under the respectful gaze of his assistant.

 The abolishment of slavery and the end civil war gives the people of America the freedom to life, which is the very thing Lincoln aimed to achieve during his hero’s journey and runs through the entire film as the main plot line.

 Altogether, as Lincoln is a historic figure it was not certain the Hero’s journey would apply to his path very well, but even though some points might be up for discussion as they can be interpreted differently, Lincoln has a clear arc of separation, where the audience gets thrown into the scenario of civil war and slavery in the south, which leads to initiation in which the votes for the senate to pass the amendment need to be found and finally the return, in which the amendment is passed, slavery abolished and the civil war ended. It was a very interesting film to watch and to review and my personal score would be 5 (out of 5) stars as one can truly feel for Lincolns struggle with his morals and his own family, the set designs and acting are also truly outstanding.


Figure 1: Steven Spielberg (2012) Lincoln Poster [Still of Lincoln] available from: (accessed: 28/9/2015)
Figure 2: Steven Spielberg (2012) The Goddess [Still of Lincoln] available from: (accessed: 28/9/2015)
Figure 3: Steven Spielberg (2012) The day of the vote [Still of Lincoln] available from: (accessed: 28/9/2015)

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