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Lincoln Unchained: A Principled Hardball Negotiator For the Ages – Film Review

“Lincoln” is worthy of admission to the elite pantheon of excellent films, few in number, that focus on negotiation. More than merely a well-drawn historical drama, as some have characterized it, the film pushes beyond the simplistic mythology of Lincoln as the great emancipator and savior of the Union to examine the reality of what is required to negotiate difficult human events.  Not surprisingly, little has changed in the intervening 150 years, which makes the film deserving of careful review by teachers and practitioners of negotiation and mediation.

Especially in recent years, under the influence of professional training courses and academic programs, there has been a concerted effort to systemize, makeover, and market negotiation and mediation as rational and sensible modes of conflict management. Most of the prevalent models incorporate the heuristic biases of the techno-rational Western cultures, still dedicated to the principles of the Enlightenment.  The reigning belief is that most disputes and controversies can be settled by civil dialogue, and their interests and needs fairly allocated if only people are given the opportunity “to come and reason together.”

President Abraham Lincoln, supported by his own expressions of faith in the power of reason, has always served as the embodiment of the Myth of Rationality — the story, Americans especially, like to tell themselves and need to believe to make sense of the chaotic world around them.  Lincoln draws from Euclidean Geometry, metaphoric proof of the principle of human equality as a knowable truth:  “things equal to the same thing are equal to each other”  (Kushner, Tony, Lincoln: The Screenplay, p. 99, 2012).  Similarly, his often cited preference, first as a lawyer and later as a politician, to seek the reasoned and amicable settlement, remains the stuff of legend to the present day, and, while valid, sometimes suffers from being simplistically emphasized. Many articles and books reference Lincoln to encourage lawyers to work as  “peacemakers,”  “discourage litigation,” and  “… persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can”   (Stipanovich, Thomas J.,  “Lincoln’s Lesson for Lawyers,” Dispute Resolution Magazine, 2010).  

Given his penchant for reason and peacemaking, however, it is nothing short of an amazing historical irony that Lincoln was compelled to preside over one of the most contentious periods and notorious events of American History, the Civil War between the States.  For many, the same issues of states’ rights and a “Jim Crow” culture, and the underlying enmity between the northern and southern regions, remain unabated and still referenced by more than few as “the war of Northern aggression.” (Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow, 2010; Thompson, Tracy, The New Mind of the South, 2013)

Most notably and admirably, the rendering of Lincoln in this filmleaves the thin air of myth and legend that has constrained so many previous studies of Lincoln and realistically examines and depicts how Lincoln actually worked, more precisely, negotiated the conflict terrain with which he was confronted.  The President, distinguished himself by maintaining his moral imagination and belief in rationalist principles of justice and equality in the midst of such difficult and complex social and political times.  Such determination would be enough in itself to make him deserving of his considerable reputation.  However, that reputation is all the more enhanced because of his negotiative acumen. His moral purpose contained a deep strain of pragmatism that allowed him to recognize that “… principle without compromise is empty; (and) compromise without principle is blind” (Smith, Steven B.,  “A Lincoln for our Time,” NY Times Book Review, Feb. 14, 2013).

 Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s negotiation strategies, techniques and skills have been less the subject of careful study and more commonly merely lumped in to generalized discussions of leadership and statecraft.  Even though most major historical events were as much the result of the negotiated processes that took place in and around the wars and confrontations, for example, the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence, most find such negotiation tedious at best.  Some have suggested Lincoln lost out in this year’s Academy Awards for Best Picture because many found it slow and not sufficiently dramatic — and because of the topic (the film did not play well in the Southern States). Few critics or commentators paid attention to the negotiation sequences. They treated the film instead as a character study of Lincoln.  Perhaps this is due to the continuing resistance to recognize the importance and necessity of negotiation and a failure to appreciate the very real drama of a chaotic and difficult negotiation process.

Only the best conflict negotiators or mediators have the ability to maintain a vision of what is desirable and at the same time intuit and effectively chart a pragmatically strategic course for the realization of those ideals. Counter balancing his reading of Euclid, Lincoln observes from his days as a surveyor that, “(a) compass … (will) point you True North from where you are standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?”  (Kushner, T. p.78).  Lincoln appreciated what some rationalists find disconcerting if not downright off-putting: being rational requires accepting, anticipating and calculating for human beings to be irrational.

In present day parlance, this is the “predictable irrationality” factor that is present in all human decision-making.  These are the tricks our messy human brains play on our memory and perceptions that are largely unaccounted for by Rational Decision Making Theory (Kahneman, D., Thinking Fast and Slow, 2012).  This is also the dilemma of negotiation and mediation in a culture that holds fiercely to the Myth of Rationality.  If one believes that issues can be resolved and controversies settled by logical analysis, ‘evidence-based’ findings, and reasoned discussion, then negotiating an outcome at variance from what one knows to be the right answer is tantamount to compromising that truth, and an unseemly act of selling-out one’s principles. The resistance to negotiation and mediation is apparent in the present day as it was one hundred and fifty years ago, or, for that matter, as it has been for much of history (Berlin, I., The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 1991).

This disdain for negotiation, while more pronounced on the conservative end of the political spectrum, is shared by many on the progressive left as well. Frank Rich, an astute cultural and political critic, noted in his film review of Lincoln how the negotiation process was misapprehended by “beltway” pundits “cheerleading for Lincoln as a parable of bipartisanship …”  ”the nobility of politics … (said David Brooks)” that offered “a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise,” while failing to observe that “Lincoln’s compromises were not of principle, but of process  (Rich, F. “Torture, Compromise, Revenge: Oscars for the Obama Age” New York Magazine, Feb 13, 2013).   Negotiation is not — or at least does not have to be — about selling out. 

One of the first principles of effective negotiation is the awareness that timing is everything.  In that regard, Lincoln is narrowly focused on a scant 30-day period towards the end of a grueling, brutal, and exhausting Civil War in 1865.  Lincoln presciently recognized that the Emancipation Proclamation he had issued in 1863 as an executive order would be effectively dissolved by the war’s end and was insufficient to insure the permanent end of slavery, and if he was to obtain the passage of a Thirteenth Amendment permanently ending slavery through a divided, war weary and reticent Congress, he could not wait.  He gauged that his objective could only be strategically accomplished in the political and social climate of the times by harnessing his purpose to the emotional momentum to end the war. As in many negotiations, there are narrow windows of opportunity that present themselves and must be quickly acted upon to exploit their benefit to the fullest.

While not perfect, as some have observed, the film is more historically accurate than most (Bromwich, David, “How Close to Lincoln? New York Review of Books, Jan 10, 2013). Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Team of Rivals (2005), and Tony Kushner’s quality screen play (Pulitzer Prize winner for Angels in America), the pitch perfect and visceral performance by Daniel Day Lewis as the President, and a supporting cast including Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader and Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln, were exceptional. 

The dramatic and accurate factual rendering of the context and issues offers the viewer an exceptional opportunity to observe Lincoln’s complete range of negotiation strategies, techniques and skills.  As the study of any sophisticated and proficient negotiator will demonstrate, Lincoln’s style was necessarily an amalgam drawn from a variety of approaches.   He is at once a noble hero and devious trickster. While reason and thoughtful persuasion remained his desired approach, he did not shy from the use of more primal tactics that relied on his exercise of power that sometimes included intimidation.  He also knew the importance of strategic thinking, timing his actions for maximum effect, assessing his allies and identifying sources of resistance, and in the use of constructive deceptions, games, and other manipulations of the surrounding circumstances that would be worthy of Machiavelli.  In addition to appeals to reason and persuasion about doing the “right thing,” Lincoln also used a variety of manipulations and a few deceptions in order to reach an acceptable compromise, in the same way many mediations and negotiations are done to this day. Almost invariably, negotiated agreements obligate a deal with the devil as moral principle is cut by pragmatic necessity.  

Lincoln powerfully captures the gap not only between historical myth and fact, but also between the reality of negotiation and mediation as they must be practiced and more fanciful and ideologically bound notions of managing conflict. And, because it is all too common to split off negotiation in the political sphere as unique and specialized, it is important to note the same issues apply to all dispute contexts, be they business, family, workplace, or other matters.  Most negotiations or mediations invariably require deals be made that raise questions of fairness, justice and moral propriety and are subject to second-guessing.Similarly, many people continue to view negotiation and communication as one in the same and they are not; whilegood communication is an essential ingredient for effective negotiation, it is not sufficient. This filmrequires negotiation practitioners to confront and grapple with the gap between their idea of what negotiation should be and what it must be and is.

Negotiation to this day remains for many people a troubling, frustrating, tedious, and byzantine process where the predictable irrationality of human decision-making, as recently documented by neuroscience and cognitive psychology, is on full display.  Professional education and training offer little relief and sometimes contribute to these biases and contortions in thinking.  The most notoriously pervasive of those heuristic biases is overconfidence – people and professionals being too sure they are right in their beliefs — and being risk averse — so fearful of loss that even the greater opportunity for gain is rejected. For professional mediators, their special hubris remains their investment in the belief that they are neutral agents, capable of being objective. While many negotiators and mediators might practice with the best of intentions to align with the better angels of their nature, they must necessarily confront and consort with their own demons and those of others. Just being mindful of their susceptibility to bias and attempting to remain balanced is a hard enough task without presuming to be more.

Lincoln does not shy away from showing the President engaged in a variety of undisclosed side deals and varying deceptions and utterances that strain the truth and perhaps even lawful behavior.  Not unlike folkloric trickster figures and heroes from every culture throughout the ages, Lincoln uses both sacred and profane methods to obtain his objective, as all negotiators must do to make deals work. The best that one can hope for is to keep such deceptions to a minimum and constructive, more precisely, geared toward the gain of a workable agreement, as opposed to destructively geared toward personal gain at the expense of others.

In Lincoln, the President begins the process reasonably enough by laying out his rationale for the Thirteenth Amendment for his cabinet.   However, as the resistance –in his own Republican party along with the obstructing Democrats stiffens, and time is slipping away, he begins to resort to more primal, hardball negotiation tactics. Many American Presidents have done likewise. Lyndon Johnson, reports Robert Caro, one of his most thorough and masterful biographers, effectively spiced his negotiation approach toward recalcitrant legislators with equal measures of enticements and threats. In his lobbying for the passage of the still venerated Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other notable pieces of social legislation, he was not above intimidating and sometimes pressing his tall frame of a body into his target, and sticking his index finger into his chest to emphasize his threat of the loss of an earmark for the funding of a desired project for a home district or state. This is not so different from the scene in this film where Lincoln’s surreptitiously has assembled a seedy group of operatives, reminiscent of the Watergate “plumbers” who served President Richard Nixon, to procure votes for the Amendment by promising employment and patronage positions. Lincoln and Johnson both understood that, while reasoned appeals might be preferred, a negotiator must sometimes instill a sense of fear and the threat of a consequence for the failure to deal. 

Frank Rich rightly notes that what has hampered President Obama in his dealings with Republicans is the removal of the practice of earmarks that have greased the wheels of many deals for generations, along with the President’s apparent personal reticence to use such heavy handed tactics and act like the unrepentant “Chicago Pol” he is accused of being. (Rich, Frank,  “Torture, Compromise, Revenge: Oscars for the Obama Age,” New York Magazine, February 3, 2103.)  As David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist recently observed, the President needs to more readily use the time-honored negotiation tactic of fear, “Obama needs to make people afraid of him.”  (Linkins, Jason, “TV Sound Off:  Sunday Talking Heads,” Huffington Post, May 5, 2013)  In the film, with only a few days left, President Lincoln models for his operatives in a backroom meeting the fear he expects them to instill to the hold outs with a strategic tirade: “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!  You will procure me those votes.”  (Kushner, T.  Lincoln:  The Screenplay, p.128, 2012). Present day negotiators and mediators may not have the same authority or power as a President, but they do have available their force of personality to bring about workable agreements. 

Similarly, knowing that secret peace negotiations were simultaneously in progress with the Confederacy, and that, if such knowledge were made public he would lose the momentum for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, when directly confronted to confirm the rumors, Lincoln was compelled to carefully parse his words.  By saying,  “(S)o far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city nor are there likely to be.”  He deftly sidestepped the fact that there were peace negotiations going on just outside Washington D.C.  Although he would not have passed Sissela Bok’s strict test of truth telling espoused by many, which would most certainly forbid such an intentional misdirection, Lincoln knew the word-play would buy him valuable time.  (Bok, S.  Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life, 1978)  Most mediators and negotiators regularly struggle with such tactical choices about when necessary and to what extent varying forms of game-playing and theatrics are justified to make a deal come together.

Lincoln’s willingness to enter the realm of the profane in pursuit of a sacred purpose, as this film suggests, does not diminish, but rather enhances, his deserved reputation as a great leader and negotiator.  In negotiations, there is no avoiding the struggle with the demons commonly loosed by the harsh realities and difficult choices presented by complex issues.   Neat right-or-wrong rules are almost never available or helpful. “Win/win” solutions in such matters are, more often than not, little more than a fanciful notion.  All who negotiate or mediate recognize the obligatory “deal with the devil” that is far more common. 

Lincoln joins two other films that have directly focused on the negotiative and mediative processes in the management of difficult conflicts. Thirteen Days (2000), concerns the negotiation between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and Hotel Rwanda (2004), depicts the life-saving negotiations by a non-descript hotel manager among warring factions in the midst of a horrific civil war in Rwanda, allowing for the survival of more than a thousand civilians.  

In Lincoln, the critical importance of negotiation skill in effective leadership is brought to life.  It offers a dynamic, engaging, and realistic close-up of President Lincoln’s orchestration of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that permanently ended the formal practice of slavery.  It is important to note that, while heroic, negotiation almost never solves the problem at hand.  Here it does not cure the infection of racial discrimination that remains significant to this day. However, this film gives good instruction concerning the sometimes tedious, frustrating and circuitous negotiation process that must be studied for change to happen in pursuit of a more perfect union.

Related Articles:

“The Natural History of Negotiation and Mediation: The Evolution of Negotiative Behavior and Rituals,”, June 2012

“Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict: Mediators, Tricksters and the Constructive Uses of Deception,” in Bringing Peace Into the Room, Eds. Bowling, D. and Hoffman, D., John Wiley &Sons, 2003

“The Guerrilla Mediator: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict,” Aug 1999,

“Hotel Rwanda and the Guerrilla Negotiator,” film review, Feb 2005,

“John Adams: The Reluctant Revolutionary and the Negotiation of the Declaration of Independence,” film review, March, 2008

Reel Negotiation:  The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly-Reflections of Negotiation and Mediation in Film,” P. Adler and R. Benjamin, Oct 2006,

“Obama the Negotiator:  The Strategic use of Anger,” March 2009,

May 8, 2013

Copyright, Robert D. Benjamin


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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