“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.”