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.
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."
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.
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 [email protected] or 801-236-6051.