Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln': family-friendly and accurate

Published: Thursday, Nov. 15 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

In this undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox, Daniel Day-Lewis, stars as President Abraham Lincoln, in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln." (AP Photo/DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, David James)


The seed that would become Steven Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln,” which debuts in theaters around the country Nov. 16, was planted 13 years ago when the Oscar-winning director met historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Goodwin, winner of a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for her book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, told Spielberg her next project would be a biographical treatment of Abraham Lincoln.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker — who recently told the TV news program “60 Minutes” he had “always wanted to tell a story about Lincoln” — couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.

“At that moment I was impulsively seized with the chutzpah to ask her to let me reserve the motion-picture rights,” Spielberg recalled in an interview with Smithsonian magazine.

Goodwin consented.

She subsequently published “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” in 2005. Thereafter, renowned playwright Tony Kushner regularly kept Goodwin in the loop during the years he spent fastidiously crafting for Spielberg a screenplay replete with authentic 19th-century dialogue.

Zealous attention to historic detail from media luminaries like Goodwin, Spielberg and Kushner makes “Lincoln” more than just a good feature-length film. The rich historic accuracy and iconic subject matter of “Lincoln” collectively create ample educational value for American families and a film that some critics are calling a "must see."

‘The springboard’

Kushner’s screenplay for “Lincoln” focuses almost exclusively on January 1865, when Lincoln fought tooth-and-nail to pass the slavery-ending 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives before the Civil War ended. Less than 1 percent of Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” deals with the 13th Amendment, but Kushner believes her overarching vision of Lincoln still played a vital role in the film’s synthesis.

“Doris’ book was the springboard; Steven bought the rights to it even before it was published,” Kushner told the Deseret News. “The spirit of ‘Team of Rivals’ — Doris’ sense of things — was very much like a great (beginning).

“When you read Lincoln biographies — and I’ve read a lot of them — many of them are really splendid. But everybody has a slightly different take on who he was and what he was doing and how he governed and how he did what he did. Some of (the biographies) are less simpatico than others, and everybody has to find their own Lincoln in a way. One of the things that makes the film work is that Steven and I were both looking for the same Lincoln, and we both found him in Doris’ book.”

Six years of refinement

Once he held Goodwin’s biography in hand, Kushner performed his own deep dive into Lincoln’s life. Before writing a single word, he spent six months poring over not just Lincoln biographies but also original sources like eyewitness accounts of people who had met Lincoln. Kushner paid special attention to the language and culture that enveloped the 16th president, such as the plays Lincoln attended and the serial fiction he enjoyed reading.

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