In January 1865, President Abraham Lincoln expects the Civil War to end soon – perhaps within a month – with the defeat of the Confederate States. However, he is concerned that his war-time 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts once the war has concluded, and that the proposed Thirteenth Amendment will be defeated by the returning slave states. Lincoln feels it is imperative to pass the amendment before that, thus removing any possibility that slaves who have already been freed may be re-enslaved. The Radical Republicans fear the amendment will be defeated by some who merely wish to delay its passage; the support of the amendment by Republicans in the border states is not yet assured either, since they prioritize the issue of ending the war. Even if all of them are ultimately brought on board, the amendment will still require the support of several Democratic congressmen if it is to pass. With dozens of Democrats having just become lame ducks after losing their re-election campaigns in the fall of 1864, some of Lincoln's advisors believe that he should wait until the new Republican-heavy Congress is seated, presumably giving the amendment an easier road to passage. Lincoln, however, remains adamant about having the amendment in place and the issue of slavery settled before the war is concluded and the southern states readmitted into the Union.
Lincoln's hopes for passage of the amendment rely upon the support of Francis Preston Blair, a founder of the Republican Party whose influence can ensure that all members of the western and border state conservative Republican faction will back the amendment. With Union victory in the Civil War seeming highly likely and greatly anticipated, but not yet a fully accomplished fact, and with two sons serving in the Union Army, Blair is keen to end the hostilities as soon as possible. Therefore, in return for his support, Blair insists that Lincoln allow him to immediately engage the Confederate government in peace negotiations. This is a complication to Lincoln's amendment efforts since he knows that a significant portion of the support he has garnered for the amendment is from the Radical Republican faction for whom a negotiated peace that leaves slavery intact is morally unacceptable, and that other Republicans will be content to end the war but leave slavery intact. Unable to proceed without Blair's support, however, Lincoln reluctantly authorizes Blair's mission.
In the meantime, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward work on the issue of securing the necessary Democratic votes for the amendment. Lincoln suggests that they concentrate on the lame duck Democrats, as they have already lost re-election and thus will feel free to vote as they choose, rather than having to worry about how their vote will affect a future re-election campaign. Furthermore, those members will soon be in need of employment, and Lincoln will have many federal jobs to fill as he begins his second term, which he sees as a tool he can use to his advantage. Though Lincoln and Seward are unwilling to offer direct monetary bribes to the Democrats, they authorize agents to quietly go about contacting Democratic congressmen with offers of federal jobs in exchange for their voting in favor of the amendment.
At a key moment in the debate, racial-equality advocate Thaddeus Stevens agrees to moderate his position, instead arguing that the amendment represents only legal equality, not a declaration of actual equality. Meanwhile, Confederate envoys are ready to meet with Lincoln to discuss terms for peace, but he instructs that they be kept out of Washington, as the amendment approaches a vote on the House floor. A rumor of their mission circulates, prompting both Democrats and conservative Republicans to advocate postponing the vote on the amendment. But in a carefully worded statement, Lincoln denies that there are envoys in Washington, and the vote proceeds, narrowly passing by a margin of two votes. Black visitors to the gallery celebrate, and Stevens returns home to his "housekeeper" and lover, a mixed-race woman.
When Lincoln subsequently meets with the Confederates, he tells them that slavery cannot be restored as the North is united for ratification of the amendment, and that several of the southern states' reconstructed legislatures would also vote to ratify. On April 3, Lincoln visits the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia, where he exchanges a few words with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Six days later, Grant receives General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
On April 14, Lincoln is in a meeting with members of his cabinet, discussing possible future measures to enfranchise blacks when he is reminded that First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is waiting to take them to their evening at Ford's Theatre. That night, while Lincoln's son Tad is watching Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at Grover's Theatre, the manager suddenly stops the play and announces that the President has been shot, to the audience's shock and Tad's distress. The next morning at the Petersen House, Lincoln dies; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declares, "Now he belongs to the ages".
Lincoln is seen again delivering his second inaugural address.Lincoln household
Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln
Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln
Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln
Gulliver McGrath as Tad Lincoln
Stephen Henderson as Lincoln's valet William Slade
Elizabeth Marvel as Mrs. Jolly
Adam Driver as Lincoln's telegraph operator, historically Grant's operator, Samuel Beckwith
Jared Harris as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant
Asa-Luke Twocrow as Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker, a Native American Military Secretary to Grant and drafter of the terms of the Confederate Army's surrender at Appomattox Court House
Colman Domingo as Private Harold Green
David Oyelowo as Corporal Ira Clark
Lukas Haas as First White Soldier
Dane DeHaan as Second White Soldier
David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward
Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton
Joseph Cross as Major John Hay, Lincoln's military secretary
Jeremy Strong as John George Nicolay, Lincoln's private secretary
Grainger Hines as Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
Richard Topol as Attorney General James Speed
Dakin Matthews as Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher
Walt Smith as Secretary of the Treasury William P. Fessenden
James Ike Eichling as Postmaster General William Dennison
House of Representatives
Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.
Lee Pace as Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood of New York
Peter McRobbie as Democratic Congressman George H. Pendleton of Ohio, leader of the Democratic opposition
Bill Raymond as Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, a Republican
David Costabile as Republican Congressman James Ashley of Ohio
Stephen Spinella as radical Republican Congressman Asa Vintner Litton
Michael Stuhlbarg as Democratic Congressman George Yeaman of Kentucky
Boris McGiver as Democratic Congressman Alexander Coffroth of Pennsylvania
Walton Goggins as Democratic Congressman Clay Hawkins of Ohio. A composite character based on the 16 Democrats who broke with their party to cast decisive votes in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery.
David Warshofsky as Congressman William Hutton, whose brother died in the war A composite character of the representatives who did suffer personal losses during the war.
Michael Stanton Kennedy as Republican Congressman Hiram Price of Iowa
Raynor Scheine as Republican Congressman Josiah S. 'Beanpole' Burton of Missouri. A composite character of the representatives whose votes were procured through various political connections and influence.
Christopher Evan Welch as Clerk of the House Edward McPherson
Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair
James Spader as Republican Party operative William N. Bilbo
Tim Blake Nelson as lobbyist Richard Schell. (Schell was a Democratic lobbyist who worked with Republicans to obtain votes in the House for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.)
John Hawkes as Republican operative Colonel Robert Latham
Byron Jennings as Conservative Republican Montgomery Blair, son of Francis Preston Blair
Julie White as Elizabeth Blair Lee: Lee was the daughter of Francis Preston Blair, and wrote hundreds of letters documenting events during the Civil War
S. Epatha Merkerson as Lydia Smith: Smith was Thaddeus Stevens' biracial housekeeper.
Wayne Duvall as Radical Republican Senator Benjamin "Bluff Ben" Wade
John Hutton as Senator Charles Sumner
Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens
Gregory Itzin as John Archibald Campbell
Michael Shiflett as the third Confederate delegate to Hampton Roads, Senate President Robert M. T. Hunter
Christopher Boyer (non-speaking role) as Robert E. Lee
While consulting on a Steven Spielberg project in 1999, Goodwin told Spielberg she was planning to write Team of Rivals, and Spielberg immediately told her he wanted the film rights. DreamWorks finalized the deal in 2001, and by the end of the year, John Logan signed on to write the script. His draft focused on Lincoln's friendship with Frederick Douglass. Playwright Paul Webb was hired to rewrite and filming was set to begin in January 2006, but Spielberg delayed it out of dissatisfaction with the script. Liam Neeson said Webb's draft covered the entirety of Lincoln's term as President.
Tony Kushner replaced Webb. Kushner considered Lincoln "the greatest democratic leader in the world" and found the writing assignment daunting because "I have no idea [what made him great]; I don't understand what he did any more than I understand how William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet or Mozart wrote Così fan tutte." He delivered his first draft late and felt the enormous amount written about Lincoln did not help either. Kushner said Lincoln's abolitionist ideals made him appealing to a Jewish writer, and although he felt Lincoln was Christian, he noted the president rarely quoted the New Testament and that his "thinking and his ethical deliberation seem very talmudic". By late 2008, Kushner joked he was on his "967,000th book about Abraham Lincoln". Kushner's initial 500-page draft focused on four months in the life of Lincoln, and by February 2009 he had rewritten it to focus on two months in Lincoln's life when he was preoccupied with adopting the Thirteenth Amendment.
Spielberg first approached Daniel Day-Lewis about the project in 2003, but Day-Lewis turned down the part at the time, believing the idea of himself playing Lincoln to be "preposterous". Liam Neeson was then cast as Lincoln in January 2005, having previously worked with Spielberg in Schindler's List. In preparation for the role, Neeson studied Lincoln extensively. However, in July 2010, Neeson left the project, saying that he had grown too old for the part. Neeson was 58 at the time, and Lincoln, during the time period depicted, was 55 and 56. In an interview with GQ Neeson stated that he realized during a table read that the part was not right for him in "a thunderbolt moment" and after the read requested that Spielberg recast his role. Co-star Sally Field, in a 2012 PBS interview, intimated that Neeson's decision was influenced by the death of his wife Natasha Richardson less than a year earlier. In November 2010, it was announced that Day-Lewis would replace Neeson in the role.
While promoting Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May 2008, Spielberg announced his intention to start filming in early 2009, for release in November, ten months after the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. In January 2009, Taunton and Dighton, Massachusetts were being scouted as potential locations. Spielberg arranged a $50 million budget for the film, to please Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, who had previously delayed the project over concerns it was too similar to Spielberg's commercially unsuccessful Amistad (1997). Spielberg had wanted Touchstone Pictures – which agreed to distribute all his films from 2010 – to distribute the film, but he was unable to afford paying off Paramount, which had collaborated with DreamWorks on the film's development.
Filming took place in Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg, Virginia. In reference to Petersburg, according to location manager Colleen Gibbons, "one thing that attracted the filmmakers to the city was the 180-degree vista of historic structures" which is "very rare".
The Virginia State Capitol served as the exteriors and interiors of the U.S Capitol, and the exteriors of the White House. The House of Delegates inside the building was remodeled to fit for The House of Representatives Chamber set. The AMF Building stood in for the White House interiors. Lincoln toured Richmond on April 3, 1865, the day after it fell to the Union Army. Scenes were also filmed in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Virginia Repertory Theatre's November Theatre which represented Grovers Theatre. Abraham Lincoln visited the building on April 4, 1865, after Richmond fell to the Union Army.
John Williams composed and conducted the score. The score was recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The soundtrack album was released by Sony Classical on November 6, 2012.
All music was composed by Williams, except "Battle Cry of Freedom," which was written in 1862 by American composer George Frederick Root (1820–1895) during the American Civil War.
Lincoln held its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 8, 2012. The film was also screened at the 2012 AFI Film Festival on November 8, 2012. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures distributed the film in North America through the Touchstone Pictures banner, while 20th Century Fox distributed the film in the remaining international territories. Disney Publishing Worldwide released several companion books and ancillary literature in anticipation of the film, including Lincoln: A Cinematic and Historical Companion and Lincoln: A Spielberg Film – Discover the Story. DreamWorks and Google Play released the film's trailer during a Google+ hangout with Spielberg and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on September 13, 2012. Then, on September 10, 2012, a teaser for the trailer was released.
Lincoln was released by Touchstone Home Entertainment on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download in North America on March 26, 2013. The film debuted at No. 1 in Blu-ray and DVD sales in its first week of release. Disney Educational Productions donated DVD copies of the film and a teaching guide titled Stand Tall: Live Like Lincoln to more than 37,100 secondary schools in the United States, after Spielberg received letters from educators requesting to incorporate the film into their curriculum.
Lincoln earned $182,207,973 in North America from 2,293 theaters and $93,085,477 overseas for a total of $275,293,450, well exceeding its $65 million budget. The film had a limited opening in 11 theaters with $944,308 and an average of $85,846 per theater. It opened at the #15 rank, becoming the highest opening of a film with such a limited release. The film opened in 1,175 theaters with $21,049,406 and an average of $11,859 per theater. Due to the widespread success of Lincoln, Disney produced additional prints of the film to accommodate theater demand.
Lincoln received worldwide critical acclaim. The cast was notably lauded, especially Day-Lewis, Field, and Jones. The film currently holds a 90% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 255 reviews with an average rating of 8/10, with the critical consensus "Daniel Day-Lewis characteristically delivers in this witty, dignified portrait that immerses the audience in its world and entertains even as it informs." On Metacritic, which assigns a rating out of 100 based on reviews from critics, the film has a score of 86 (out of 100) based on 44 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim", thus making it Spielberg's highest rated film on the site since Saving Private Ryan.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 4 out of 4 stars and said, "The hallmark of the man, performed so powerfully by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, is calm self-confidence, patience and a willingness to play politics in a realistic way." Glenn Kenny of MSN Movies gave it 5 out of 5 stars stating, "It's the most remarkable movie Steven Spielberg has made in quite a spell, and one of the things that makes it remarkable is how it fulfills those expectations by simultaneously ignoring and transcending them."
Colin Covert of the Star Tribune wrote, "Lincoln is one of those rare projects where a great director, a great actor and a great writer amplify one another's gifts. The team of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner has brought forth a triumphant piece of historical journalism, a profound work of popular art and a rich examination of one of our darkest epochs." It was praised by Charlie McCollum of the San Jose Mercury News as "one of the finest historical dramas ever committed to film." Despite mostly positive reviews, Rex Reed of The New York Observer stated, "In all, there's too much material, too little revelation and almost nothing of Spielberg's reliable cinematic flair." However, the reviews have been unanimous in their praise of Day-Lewis's performance as Abraham Lincoln. A. O. Scott from The New York Times stated the film "is finally a movie about how difficult and costly it has been for the United States to recognize the full and equal humanity of black people" and concluded that the movie was "a rough and noble democratic masterpiece".
Scott also stated that Lincoln's concern about his wife's emotional instability and "the strains of a wartime presidency... produce a portrait that is intimate but also decorous, drawn with extraordinary sensitivity and insight and focused, above all, on Lincoln's character as a politician. This is, in other words, less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson that is energetically staged and alive with moral energy."
Lebanese film critic Anis Tabet gave the film a positive review, giving it a 3.5/4 rating.
As reported in the Maariv newspaper, on February 3, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ministers discussed Spielberg's film, which several of them saw in Israeli cinemas. They debated whether the end of abolishing slavery justified the means used by Lincoln, and also compared Lincoln's predicament with their own complicated situation in the confused aftermath of the 2013 Israeli elections.
The review by The Daily Mail suggested: "The sad truth is that Spielberg and his writer Tony Kushner are offering a phoney, sanitised version of Lincoln."
Eric Foner (Columbia University), a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian of the period, claimed in a letter to The New York Times that the film "grossly exaggerates" its main points about the choices at stake in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Kate Masur (Northwestern University) accuses the film of oversimplifying the role of blacks in abolition and dismissed the effort as "an opportunity squandered" in an op-ed for The New York Times. Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and author of more than 40 books, served as a consultant to the film and praised it, but also observed that there is "no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie" in a piece for The Daily Beast. Barry Bradford, a member of the Organization of American Historians, offers an analysis of some of the finer historical points of the film's representation of clothing, relationships and appearance. Allen Guelzo (Gettysburg College), also writing for The Daily Beast, had some plot criticism, but disagreed with Holzer, arguing that, "The pains that have been taken in the name of historical authenticity in this movie are worth hailing just on their own terms". In a later interview with the World Socialist Web Site Guelzo claimed that "the film was 90 percent on the mark, which given the way Hollywood usually does history is saying something". David Stewart, independent historical author, writing for History News Network, described Spielberg's work as "reasonably solid history", and told readers of HNN to "go see it with a clear conscience". Lincoln biographer Ronald White also admired the film, though he noted a few mistakes and pointed out in an interview with NPR, "Is every word true? No." Historian Joshua M. Zeitz, writing in The Atlantic, noted some minor mistakes, but concluded "Lincoln is not a perfect film, but it is an important film". Following a screening during the film's opening weekend, the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force held a panel discussion in which Dr. David Woodard of Concordia University remarked, "I always look at these films to see if a regular person who wasn't a 'Lincoln nut' would want to read a book about it after they watched the movie. I get the impression that most people who are not history buffs will now want to read something about Lincoln."
Lincoln was listed on many critics' top ten lists.