Even after starting his script, Kushner’s historic inquiries didn’t stop. The cyclical process of researching, writing and revising ultimately stretched across six years, and unearthed a treasure trove of authentic anecdotes (such as a hilarious joke Lincoln liked to tell about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen’s visit to a British bathroom) and obscure characters (like W.N. Bilbo, the backroom political operative that James Spader portrays with gusto in “Lincoln”) that ended up in Kushner’s screenplay despite not being staples of Lincoln’s biographic lexicon — much less present in “Team of Rivals.”
With so much rich source material to pull from, one of the biggest challenges for Kushner and Spielberg actually proved to be restricting the film’s focus.
“When I first started writing, I thought I was going to be able to cover everything from September 1863 all the way to the assassination (in April 1865),” Kushner said. “It took me a year and a half of attempting to figure out a way to boil all that story down to realize it was impossible.”
In his first draft Kushner subsequently narrowed the screenplay’s focus to the first four months of 1865, but even that time frame was too broad. Needing a storyline that could encapsulate Abraham Lincoln’s character and personality within a relatively brief span of time, Kushner and Spielberg finally settled on the story of Lincoln’s quest to enact the 13th Amendment so that the abolitionist effects of a wartime Emancipation Proclamation could continue even after the Civil War ended.
“The 13th Amendment has the virtue of being something that was enormously significant in the history of Lincoln’s administration, that most people don’t really know happened,” Kushner said. “Most people know about the Emancipation Proclamation, but a lot of people don’t even realize what the proclamation was and why they needed an amendment. It was exciting to do it this way, because it’s always great to add to what people know.”
An American movie
The combination of Spielberg and Kushner’s artistry with superb acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field and a talented ensemble cast has already generated Oscar buzz and earned strong praise from movie pundits. Indeed, “Lincoln” owns exceptional scores from websites that aggregate movie critics’ film reviews, such as Rotten Tomatoes (92 percent approval) and Metacritic (88 percent approval).
Yet those high percentages of positive reviews don’t tell the full story of how critics are assessing “Lincoln.” Because the film takes place during the Civil War and is a biographical examination of one of the most famous presidents in U.S. history, “Lincoln” is the rare movie that possesses the potential to resonate with all Americans.
“The movie holds us in its grip,” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote. “Lincoln represents what Teddy Roosevelt defined as ‘the man in the arena,’ who even if he fails ‘at least fails while daring greatly.’ Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis also dare greatly in giving us this complex, conflicted portrait of a great American leader. The result is a great American movie.”
Even New York Times film critic A.O. Scott temporarily shed the clinical writing style with which he parses movies during an eloquent summation of “Lincoln”: “Go see this movie. Take your children, even though they may occasionally be confused or fidgety. Boredom and confusion are also part of democracy, after all. ‘Lincoln’ is a rough and noble and democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
“Lincoln” is rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. Common Sense Media considers the film’s content to be age-appropriate for children 13 and up. Run time: 150 minutes.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
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