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When it comes to Civil War films, viewers crave drama and accuracy. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln delivers a storytelling feast, but also suffers from a few historical hiccups.

The film’s narrative is driven not by battles on the open field, but by contests in crowded chambers. Words are daggers, wielded with power and precision. Tony Kushner’s screenplay interweaves the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives with Confederate peace initiatives and tensions within Lincoln’s own family. That we know how the tale ends never diminishes our anxiety as votes are wrangled and tempers flare.

Much has already been said about Daniel Day-Lewis’s transcendent performance as Lincoln. But his accomplishment might not have been possible without equally inspired acting by David Straithairn as William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Their time on screen with Day-Lewis goes far in bringing Lincoln’s remarkable complexity into relief.

To be sure, the film has a few dramatic absurdities (e.g., white and black soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address back to the president), but this is a Hollywood blockbuster, not a PBS documentary. Viewers are transported to 1865 and allowed to eavesdrop on history, almost literally. Spielberg deserves credit for paying special attention to many critical details that enhance the overall experience, including an impressive re-creation of Lincoln’s notably cramped office. Cinematographer Janus Kaminski uses a visual palette that evokes the 19th century: rooms are smoky and dimly lit, roads are mud-caked and clogged.

Yet for all the film’s textural verisimilitude, there are interpretive missteps and inaccuracies. Lincoln is presented as a full-fledged abolitionist, which he might have been by 1865 but certainly was not earlier in the war. By not stressing his growth over time, we lose a critical component of what made him Lincoln. To generate suspense, the film also connects passage of the 13th Amendment with the Hampton Roads Peace Conference. In reality, there was no such choice between abolition and peace: By January 1865, slavery was doomed.

Some have rightly criticized the film for its lack of fully realized black characters. Incorporating Frederick Douglass into the tale, for instance, would have benefited a narrative that explores the civil rights fight. Other small moments grate on scholarly sensibilities. It is out of character for Lincoln to slap his son, Robert; Grant’s dress at Appomattox is wrong; Lincoln’s death-bed posture contradicts eyewitness accounts.

None of this really matters all that much. Spielberg’s accomplishment is to present the man, not the icon. We see Lincoln as a crafty politician and a loving father, a human being who struggled yet found a way to succeed. Lincoln, we find, was both heroic in his time and attractive to our own.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times.