Lincoln was a storyteller and politician, Copper Hills students learn
History • Copper Hills teens watch film and discuss the 16th president with professors.
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West Jordan • American myth surrounds him: Honest Abe, Uncle Abe, The Great Emancipator.

Copper Hills High senior Kaylie Prietzel, amid her 200 peers, some munching on popcorn, learned this week the finer points in separating fact from fiction.

As part of their U.S. history class, the teens watched a private screening of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," then discussed its veracity with Salt Lake Community College professors.

The 2½-hour movie depicts the crucial final weeks of Abraham Lincoln's life, when he helped push the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment through Congress and brought an end to the Civil War.

"He was great because he saved the union and ended slavery," Prietzel, 16, said just before watching the movie at a West Jordan multiplex. "But they [politicians] all lie at some point."

Marianne McKnight, a community college associate dean, and Chris Case, an American history associate professor, discussed the film as well as took questions from students. The movie's screenplay, written by playwright Tony Kushner, was based on a part of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals.

McKnight shrugged her shoulders on the question of Lincoln's honesty.

"He was a very good lawyer, smart and folksy," she said. "And a fine politician. That's Goodwin's premise."

For about 15 minutes after the movie, the two historians answered questions.

Question: Did Lincoln like to tell stories?

McKnight answered,Yes, it was a way for him to calm down tense situations.

Just as in the movie, Uncle Abe was renowned for his love of storytelling, Goodwin details in her book.

"In these convivial settings, Lincoln was invariably the center of attention," Goodwin wrote. "No one could equal his never-ending stream of stories nor his ability to reproduce them with such contagious mirth. As his winding tales became more famous, crowds of villagers awaited his arrival at every stop for the chance to hear a master storyteller."

Question: Did he bribe or offer jobs to politicians to get their votes for the amendment?

Case answered: Lincoln had to walk a tightrope to get what he was hoping for, and the film shows it.

McKnight answered: There's no direct evidence, but there were politicians who altered their votes and they did get jobs afterward.

Copper Hills history teacher Joel Sundquist said he wanted to get his students thinking outside of the classroom, so the movie seemed like a good way to do it.

"It was as simple as keeping an eye on this [movie] for a long time and reading [Goodwin's] book," Sundquist said. "It's [President Barack] Obama's favorite book, not that I want to get into politics. It's a phenomenal book. It's not the Lincoln that's a perfect guy."

Question: Did he threaten to put his wife into an insane asylum?

McKnight answered after smiling: The movie's dialogue was fictional, but Mary Todd Lincoln did suffer from mental issues.

Toward the end of the movie, Mary Todd Lincoln, who is played by Sally Field, says: "All everyone will remember of me was that I was crazy and that I ruined your happiness."

McKnight said the film did a good job of juggling dramatic filmmaking with historical accuracy, showing attention to detail, for example, by using Lincoln's actual pocket watch.

"The film does a good job in showing that slavery was the cause of the Civil War," McKnight said. "This is not a documentary but an interpretation that is dramatized. The film has created a dialogue, and that's a good thing."

In the movie, and in life, Lincoln liked to tell the story from the Revolution of Ethan Allen's visit to England. Even if the event did not actually happen, Goodwin wrote, it was a favorite of Lincoln that he often told.

In the film, as Lincoln tells the story, the British would make fun of the Americans, and Gen. George Washington in particular, by hanging a picture of Washington in an outhouse.

After a visit, when Allen made no mention of it, the English finally asked him if he had seen the Washington picture. Allen replied: It was a very appropriate place for an Englishman to keep it because there's nothing that will make an Englishman [expletive] so quick as the sight of General Washington.

Copper Hills junior Dahlon Larson, 17, said about the movie, "We got to see a little of what we talked about every day in class."

rparker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @rayutah