When producer Steven Spielberg began to talk with script writer Tony Kushner about his project to do the first serious film on Abraham Lincoln in seventy years their ideas began to coalesce when Spielberg asked, “Why don’t we make a movie about passing the 13th Amendment?”
So it is that the new “Lincoln” film came to be about only one month–January, 1865– in the life of Abraham Lincoln.
In January 1865 Lincoln had just been re-elected. The war drug on but was nearly won. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by the president as a special war powers act, abolished slavery but only within the areas of the U.S. that were “in rebellion” against the Union. There was serious question whether this war powers act, an general emancipation, would hold any legal force once the war had ended.
It is worth noting that the intense struggle to pass the 13th Amendment is confined to only five pages of 754 in Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. So this film may owe something to Goodwin’s great book, certainly in terms of its inspiration, but it owes very little in terms of the completed script. Kushner gives us his view: “I don’t like biopics that trot you through years and years of a very rich and complicated life.” (I totally agree!) Initially Kushner began the story of Lincoln in September 1863 and followed Lincoln and Chase to 1865. He now says that he never got further than January 1864! He adds, “You could write a very long mini-series out of any [single] week Lincoln occupied the White House.” The script Kushner wrote once reached 500 pages. Then Spielberg came up with his brilliant idea – focus only on the 13th Amendment.
Kushner then worked on the script for six years. This involved a lot of original research. He was consulted by some of the finest Lincoln scholars in the country, men I’ve had the joy of spending time with and learning from personally, as I noted in a previous post. A few of the characters in the finished film are fictional but this is how good film works at its best. One such character, a Nashville lawyer named W. N. Bilbo, rounds up votes and works the House to get the bill passed. He is a kind of “composite” figure who rounds out the story nicely.
Thus the big issue for the script was how to get a major film done which focused on passing a single piece of legislation. Spielberg, as has most often been the case, knows how to tell a good story and keep the movie on focus and entertaining.
So who would play Lincoln in this film? Spielberg talked to Liam Neeson about playing Lincoln. Neesom had the height but Spielberg moved to Daniel Day-Lewis and now says, “This is Daniel’s role.” Spielberg notes that “Lincoln could be in the same room with you, and he would go absent on you, he would not be there, he would be in process, working something out. I don’t know anybody who could have shown that except Daniel.” I completely agree. Daniel Day-Lewis is simply superb in this role. Before I was deeply engrossed in the film I felt like I was watching the man that I had studied for so many years–President Abraham Lincoln. He is both believable and is able to act the part right down to little nuances and habits of Lincoln. Even on the set everybody addressed Day-Lewis as “Mr. Lincoln” or “Mr. President.” Spielberg says this was his idea. I love it. Brilliant choice. Day-Lewis, as one writer has put it, gives us Lincoln’s layers, depths, angles and sparks.
Perhaps the most important part of the film’s success is how Day-Lewis is able to give us a Lincoln who is a great leader. He reveals Lincoln’s ability to lead, not by logic or force of personality, but rather by timing, by humor and even by making people feel they were getting what they really wanted. If you know anything about Lincoln you know he was a great writer. His speeches were masterful because he could write and he understood both timing and pacing. He thus remains highly quotable. But, says Roy Blount, Jr., the film captures Lincoln as a “verbal tactician.” I could not agree more.
One scene demonstrates what Blount means when he calls Lincoln a “verbal tactician.” The whole cabinet is meeting and the Confederacy is about to fall. Why risk his popularity now that Lincoln has what he wants? Why push for this amendment? Lincoln says he is not so sure the Emancipation will be binding after the War ends. He then tells the story of a woman back in Illinois that he defended for murdering her husband in a heated moment. Sensing that the people sided with this 70-year old woman, who had apparently acted in some form of self-defense, Lincoln got the judge to recess the court. During the recess Mrs. Goings fled to Tennessee. When the judge asked what happened Lincoln, her attorney, said that she asked where she could get a good drink of water and he said there was mighty good water in Tennessee. He said he did not urge her to flee. She was never found and her $1,000 bail was forgiven. In the movie the cabinet members laugh when he tells this story. As they ponder the story he shifts their attention to a logical explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation would not likely stand in the days ahead. He also argued, in a personal note, that the war itself morally demanded passage of this Amendment.
So is the movie historical? Roy Blount, Jr., says “Conversations are clearly invented, but I haven’t found anything in the movie that is contradicted by history, except that Grant looks too dressy at Appomattox. “(Lee does, for a change, look authentically corpulent at that point in his life.)” I share this view and believe this film accomplishes something extremely rare – the ability to accurately tell an important real narrative well and still be entertaining at the same time.