With “Lincoln,” his movie about Abraham Lincoln that opens Friday, Spielberg tackles the daunting task of transforming the monument into a man. The film, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, traces the months immediately after Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, when he focused on passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. As he tussles with recalcitrant lawmakers and his Cabinet — all the while grieving for his late son Willie, grappling with wife Mary’s mood swings and carrying the burden of prolonging the Civil War in order to gain lasting political change — the leader who emerges in “Lincoln” is far from a blemish-free paragon. Rather, he emerges as a complicated, even contradictory figure: wise and wily, manipulative and melancholy, formidable and vulnerable, warm and abstracted — and, perhaps most surprising of all, every bit as bare-knuckled a Washington player as any K Street power broker walking the halls of Congress today.
“I think the reason we had such an easy time talking about Lincoln and sharing a vision of Lincoln is that we both agree so deeply [that he] was an incredibly dextrous walker of tightropes,” said “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner, who joined Spielberg in the director’s New York office to talk about the film. Lincoln, he added, was “by leagues the best of any political leader in any era I can think of, somebody who over and over again managed to work his way through incredibly dangerous straits and arrive at the destination he was aiming for in the first place.”
The portrait of Lincoln that Spielberg presents — in a film that often plays like a tense, high-spirited political thriller as influence is peddled behind the scenes and votes come down to the wire — will no doubt surprise viewers raised on a more staid version of the Great Man. So, too, will the fact that he was surpassingly funny, continuously regaling colleagues, private secretaries, telegraph operators, constituents — indeed, anyone who would listen — with witty, occasionally ribald, yarns. It’s a persona that struck a familiar chord with author Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book “Team of Rivals” Spielberg optioned in 2005.
“I said to Tony, ‘You’ve got to get Ethan Allen in there,’ ” Goodwin said. She’s referring to one of the film’s more startling and delightful episodes, when the president tells an off-color joke involving the Revolutionary War hero, George Washington and an outhouse. When Goodwin started her book in 1996, she said, “I knew him as a statesman and an icon and from those incredible speeches. But I didn’t realize what a political genius he was, how he dealt with human beings, which is what a politician is — loving politics and making deals — and his humor and his storytelling. . . . I’m always asked, if you could have dinner with Lincoln, what would you ask him? I know I’m supposed to ask what he would do differently about Reconstruction, but I know I’d ask him just to tell stories.” It’s that Lincoln that Kushner, Spielberg and Day-Lewis have captured, Goodwin said. “I’ve missed him, and now he’s back again.”