Steven Spielberg was a little boy, around 6 years old, on a trip to Washington with his uncle when he first visited the Lincoln Memorial.
“I was terrified because I looked up and it was a huge giant sitting in a big, huge chair,” Spielberg recalled recently. “I was so afraid, I couldn’t look at his face. I just looked at the hands and kept pulling at my uncle to get me out of there.”
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.”
Hollywood has long harbored a fascination with the 16th president, most memorably in Henry Fonda’s depiction of him in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” and D.W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic, which redefined the notion of artistic license by depicting Lincoln (played by Walter Huston) delivering a mash-up of the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural — just before taking his seat at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Just this year, audiences got to see Lincoln as a demon-slaying superhero in the playfully revisionist “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
“Lincoln” takes no such liberties. While engaging in some of the compression and conjecture that mark any enterprise in historical fiction, the film tacks closely to the established record, including a piquant third-act reveal that will surely send curious audiences to Google for more information. (Kushner and Goodwin both say the scene is well-founded in what has long been assumed from what records exist.)
“A film is a huge, huge thing,” Kushner said of the power of cinema to shape a dominant version of history. “And a film can do damage. I mean, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ or ‘Gone With the Wind’ helped support a reading of the Civil War that I think is hugely historically erroneous in a particularly dreadful way. So there’s a responsibility that you have.”
Kushner first encountered the challenge of fact-based drama when he wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s 2005 film “Munich,” which recounted the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics and their aftermath. “The first question you ask is, Did this happen?” Kushner said. “If it happened, it’s historical. Did it happen exactly this way? If your answer is, as far as we could possibly tell, then it’s history. If the answer is, it happened, but not exactly this way, then it’s historical fiction. Historical fiction is when you have a certain license to make up what happens on the way to what happened.”
In “Lincoln,” then, what happens on the way to the president getting the 119 votes he needed to pass the 13th Amendment is a series of high-stakes encounters — with Pennsylvania radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), with his secretary of state and former campaign rival, William Seward (David Strathairn), and, most amusingly, with three disreputable political operatives, played by John Hawkes, Timothy Blake Nelson and James Spader, enlisted to procure votes by any means necessary.
Coming on the heels of a punishing election season, at a time when Congress is in particularly bad odor with the American public, “Lincoln” feels like both an idealized look back and an uncannily timely portrait of power, persuasion and partisan strife as they play out today — especially as President Obama heads into his own second term with another unruly Congress to contend with. It’s something of a truism — and an overstatement — that every generation gets the Lincoln it needs, but there’s no escaping that Spielberg’s Lincoln seems ideally suited to help contemporary audiences put their present political culture in context.
The resonances aren’t lost on Kushner, who recalled cleaning up the final draft of the “Lincoln” screenplay while watching the election returns in 2008. “I consider it a personal blessing for me to be working on this material during these years,” he said, noting that, like Lincoln, Obama “has asked us to understand — and sometimes we have and sometimes we haven’t — that he wasn’t elected king of America, that he was elected president and that he has to try, whether or not the other side wants to play ball, he has to try to be bipartisan.
“We’re not saying, ‘We had Lincoln and now we don’t have him, and we’re really screwed,’ ” Kushner continued. “What we were all working toward was making a film about a process, maybe the best, most virtuosic performers of that process that ever lived, but a process that we can all identify with, and we can see some real stumblebums in the movie actually doing a pretty good job of making things happen.”
For his part, Spielberg insists that he never saw “Lincoln” as a lens through which to view any contemporary politician, including Obama, of whom he is a supporter. Rather, he saw the “entire sacred effort” as a way to commune with the monument and the man he began circling more than 50 years ago. After tugging at his uncle’s sleeve, he recalls now, they turned around. “And as we were leaving, I just looked back over my shoulder. And the second I looked at [Lincoln’s] face, I kind of wished I had stayed. I wished I hadn’t been afraid, because I wasn’t any longer.”