Lincoln is set in the year 1865, at the end of the American Civil War. It portrays the fight by President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) to pass the 13th Amendment, forever banning slavery in the United States.
For Lincoln, passing the amendment through parliament is both a race against time and a moral dilemma. Ending the war will save countless lives, but if the war ends before the amendment passes, freed Southern slaves will fall into slavery again.
To get the votes he needs, Lincoln gets Secretary of State William Steward (David Strathairn) to hire lobbyists W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson). Lincoln promises them government jobs in return for votes. Lincoln also needs the support of the abolitionist leader, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). While staunchly supporting the 13th Amendment, Stevens opposes Lincoln in other areas and is determined to bring him down.
The emotional turmoil of Lincoln’s family life is woven through the movie’s main story. His wife, Mary (Sally Field), can’t come to terms with the sudden death of a son years earlier. She shows signs of psychological instability. Meanwhile Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who has recently returned from studying law at Harvard, is determined to enlist in the army. This might push Mary over the edge.
The final part of the movie follows the actual vote for the amendment. This intense situation involves last-minute personal lobbying by Lincoln as well as some political tricks.
This movie has intense re-enactments of American Civil War battle violence and carnage. For example:
- The opening scene shows a brutal and realistic battle between Union and Confederate soldiers in which men shoot each other with rifles, stab each other with swords and bayonets, and kick, choke and punch each other in the face. Men also push others underwater and into mud so that they drown. The scene doesn’t show much blood and gore.
- A voiceover says that Confederate soldiers ‘killed every negro soldier they captured at Poison Springs ... so at Jerkins Ferry we decided we weren’t taking no rebel prisoners’.
- A heated argument between Lincoln and his son ends with Lincoln slapping his son hard across the face. The movie also shows a couple of heated and emotional arguments between Lincoln and his wife Mary.
- A city burns after being bombarded with cannons. Large buildings go up in flames and other buildings crash to the ground.
- Several heated verbal arguments among politicians involve shouting, name-calling and fist-shaking.
Content that may disturb children
In addition to the violent scenes mentioned above, this movie has some scenes that could scare or disturb children under eight years. For example:
- After a battle, thousands of dead Union and Confederate soldiers lie around. The dead bodies are tangled up. Some have their eyes open, and some are pushed into the mud. One body is mangled, and its torso is ripped open.
- Several scenes show Lincoln’s youngest son looking at disturbing photographs of negro slave children and adults. One photograph shows the heavily scared back of a male slave. The scars are from being flogged with a whip. The photographs are taken away from Lincoln’s son because they give him nightmares.
- One scene shows a close-up image of a museum display of a leg with skin and flesh removed to reveal the underlying bone and muscle.
- A dead bird hangs from a tree branch with string around its feet.
- Lincoln and Mary have an emotional discussion about the sudden death of their young son. Mary has tears in her eyes. She says that her son was such a little boy and she knew that he was going to die.
- Lincoln visits a hospital. Several amputees sit in bed with the stumps of their amputated legs wrapped in cloth. Outside the hospital blood pools on the cobbled footpath. Someone pushes a wheelbarrow that has a bloody severed leg sticking out from under a cover. The person pushes the wheelbarrow to a large ditch, tips the load of severed legs and arms into the ditch and then covers them with dirt.
- Lincoln’s 10-year-old son watches a stage play. A man comes on to the stage and announces that Lincoln has been shot. The boy grabs hold of the balcony and screams in distress.
Children in this age group are also likely to be disturbed by some of the scenes mentioned above.
Some children in this age group might also be disturbed by some of the scenes mentioned above.
This movie has some sexual references. For example:
- Lincoln’s older son tells Lincoln’s 10-year-old son that slave owners pay more for female slaves if the slaves can conceive.
- One politician calls another politician a prostitute for selling his legislative vote.
Alcohol, drugs and other substances
This movie shows some use of substances. For example:
- Various characters smoke cigars and pipes. In one scene a non-smoker coughs uncontrollably after being in a room full of tobacco smoke. Another scene shows Lincoln’s son rolling a cigarette, which he doesn’t smoke.
- A man takes a pinch of snuff.
- Characters drink alcohol. A senator’s wife tells her husband’s servant to get him drunk so that he can sleep during a long coach trip. One scene shows a group of men drinking alcohol and playing cards. The men seem to be drunk – they are loud and unsteady on their feet.
Nudity and sexual activity
This movie shows some nudity and sexual activity. For example:
- Thaddeus Stevens is shown in bed with his housekeeper. Both are fully clothed in sleepwear.
- Mary Lincoln takes off her clothes while getting ready for bed. No nudity is shown.
None of concern
This movie has coarse language and name-calling throughout.
Ideas to discuss with your children
Lincoln is a drama that focuses more on the political intrigue surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment than on Lincoln’s personal life. The movie is targeted at older teenagers and adults. It might be too long and slow-moving to keep the interest of younger teenagers. It also has some violent and disturbing scenes and themes that make it unsuitable for younger viewers. The movie’s lead actors all give stunning performances.
These are the main messages from this movie:
- The process of democracy is far from perfect. The process is slow, and results take a long time.
- Equality for everyone is worth fighting for.
Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include:
- the evils of slavery
- the generosity, thoughtfulness and intelligence shown by Lincoln.
You could also talk about racism and bigotry. Are racism and bigotry as common today as they were in the United States in the 19th century, just directed towards different groups of people? Why do some people develop racist and bigoted attitudes?