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Lights, Camera, Action: Lincoln Memorial Stars Again

By Edward Epstein

Washington, D.C.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington's most-visited monument, makes a brief but telling appearance in the new No. 1 movie in America, Civil War, a troubling and much-discussed film about an America where deep divisions turn into deadly violence that shakes the nation to its core.

It's hardly the first time the 102-year-old memorial to the 16th president has played a metaphorical role in a big Hollywood production. And it's not the first time the monument has been bombed or mysteriously transformed. Screenwriters and movie directors know that the memorial and Abraham Lincoln are powerful symbols of our democracy, our national unity and our aspirations to build a better, more equitable society. That makes the memorial's use ever more potent, to dismay or inspire us.

In her review of Civil War, which opened across the U.S. a week ago, Washington Post reviewer Amy Nicholson called it a "jaw-clenching, bullet-clanging thriller." Director Alex Garland's screenplay leaves a lot of details vague or unmentioned. The viewer doesn't know what caused the gory war between U.S. forces and the "Western Alliance," featuring the unlikely seceded duo of California and Florida. The U.S. president, played by Nick Offerman, goes unnamed, although he has somehow finagled a third term. Clearly, Garland wants his audience to be unsettled by what's going on and to reflect on it.

At the climax of the 110-minute-long movie, the rebel forces close in on Washington, D.C. The Lincoln Memorial undergoes a night-time attack and explodes, hit by a powerful shell. The memorial is on screen for less than a minute, but the impact is powerful—so powerful in fact that it's at 2:03 in the movie's trailer, available at

Garland and the movie's production company, A24. know that showing the beloved Lincoln Memorial under assault is a sure-fire way to lure people to the movie.

Civil War was the top-grossing film over the weekend, taking in $25.7 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

For the memorial, the new movie marks a return to the spotlight.

In Frank Capra's 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the disillusioned neophyte senator, played by James Stewart, wanders around Washington and ends up at the memorial, where, in a long sequence, he regains his sense of mission by looking up at the Gettysburg Address carved into the chamber's walls.

In 1952, Oscar-winning director Leo McCarey, who became one of Hollywood's leading anti-Communists in the post-World War II Red Scare era, produced My Son John, starring Helen Hayes and Robert Walker. In the movie, little seen today, Hayes comes to suspect that her son, played by Walker, is a Communist agent. He decides to repent, resulting in a car chase through the streets of Washington as his Communist masters chase after him. It climaxes in a fatal crash right on the steps of the memorial, with Lincoln looking down.

In Oliver Stone's 1995 film Nixon, the troubled president, played by Anthony Hopkins, pays an awkward pre-dawn visit to the memorial, where anti-Vietnam war protestors were encamped. Based on a real incident, the sequence is very unflattering to Nixon.

In Tim Burton's 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, a fleeing Mark Wahlberg ends up at the memorial, with apes in pursuit. He is horrified to discover that the seated figure in the chamber is not Lincoln but rather General Thade, the apes' great hero. The message seems to be that once Lincoln is gone, everything is undone.

National Park Service overhead photo.

1 Comment

Well done, ED!! Thank you; I’d “raise your pay” if you were not doing it for love of Lincoln!

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