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Everyone knows the name Abraham Lincoln and (most) Americans revere him through the mist of history. But what can we know about those momentous few weeks where he changed the future of America by fighting for the abolition of slavery, while also trying to end the civil war. In this Insider Briefing*, director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner reveal the long and demanding process that led to the film, Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln is a revered figure in America, somewhere between myth and flesh-and-blood man, as Steven Spielberg recognises. 

Yet, now more than ever, Lincoln occupies the public imagination. Perhaps it is because his very silhouette has morphed into a global symbol of the hope that power can be wielded judiciously, the filmmakers suggest. Perhaps it is because he was the only US president to stare down the real possibility that the grand experiment of an American Union might be forever crushed. Or perhaps it is because his life reveals that flawed, complicated human beings can accomplish the incredible, and inspire even those ensnared in war and dark legacies to switch directions and come together. 

It seems that for all those reasons the moment is right for a serious exploration of Lincoln’s most important legacy.

In 1865, over the final four months of his second term as President of the USA, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) focuses his energies on ending the devastating Civil War - not merely by ending it but by fighting to pass the 13th Amendment, permanently abolishing slavery. Lincoln is a man of raw paradoxes: funny and solemn, a playful storyteller and fierce power broker, a shrewd commander and a vulnerable father. But in his nation’s darkest hour, when the times demand the very best of people, he reaches from within himself for something powerful and everlasting.

"global importance"

The fact that Lincoln’s is a quintessentially American story doesn’t diminish the global importance of what he achieved – through sheer political determination, leadership and moral purpose. 

The idea of Lincoln, and the rarely seen but captivatingly human side of Lincoln, has haunted filmmaker Spielberg since childhood. Since then, he has been reading about Lincoln, thinking about Lincoln and becoming increasingly certain that Lincoln’s intensely eventful life is rife with stories that are not only inherently cinematic but are also increasingly relevant to our times. 

“I’ve always been interested in telling a story about Lincoln. He’s one of the most compelling figures in all of history and in my life,” says Spielberg. “I can remember being four or five years old when I first saw the Lincoln Memorial and being terribly frightened by the scale of the statue in that chair but then, as I got closer and closer, becoming completely captivated by his visage. I’ll never forget that moment and it left me wondering about that man sitting high above me in that chair.” 

The more Spielberg learned about Lincoln throughout his life, the more that sense of wonder grew. He continues: “Lincoln guided our country through its worst moments and allowed the ideals of American democracy to survive and assured the end of slavery. But I also wanted to make a film that would show how multifaceted Lincoln was. He was a statesman, a military leader, but also a father, a husband and a man who was always, continuously looking deep inside himself. I wanted to tell a story about Lincoln that would avoid the mistakes of both cynicism and hero worship and be true to the vastness of who he was and the intimacy of his life and the softer angles of his nature.” 

"a political genius, as an anguished family man and, most of all, as a courageous defender of the United States of America"

It would take Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who previously collaborated on Munich, a decade to find precisely the right story to tell, and the way they wanted to tell it. And when they did, surprisingly, it was a story that honed in on just a few short, vital months in Lincoln’s life. Those months would illuminate the essence of the man—as a political genius, as an anguished family man and, most of all, as a courageous defender of the United States of America. 

“We came to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s life because what he accomplished in that time was truly monumental. However, we wanted to show that he was a man, not a monument. We felt our best hope of doing justice to this immensely complicated person was to depict him in the midst of his most complex fight: to pass the 13th Amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives.” 

This compact, immersive concept for the film fascinated Spielberg. It would engage his filmmaking instincts on a different level than any film in his extensively diverse filmography. But there is one resonance that’s worth a mention: Spielberg’s film, Amistad (1997) retells the story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the Amistad, a slave ship on its way to North East America. John Quincy Adams (6th President of the US, 1825 - 1829) comes out of retirement to fight the Africans’ cause in the US Supreme Court. Adams was a leading opponent of slavery.

“My movies more often are told through pictures, not words. But in this case, the pictures took second place to the incredible words of Abraham Lincoln and his presence,” Spielberg explains. “With Lincoln, I was less interested in an outpouring of imagery than in letting the most human moments of this story evolve before us.” 

In stripping Lincoln’s final days down to their most electrifying yet stark moments of debate, political machinations, family ties and private fears and hopes, Spielberg and Kushner uncovered the gripping—and unpredictably human—nature of a democracy’s greatest battle in action. “The film does have quite a bit of suspense,” he notes, “and it could, at times, even be seen as a kind of political thriller.” 

Longtime Spielberg producing partner Kathleen Kennedy agrees that the film takes an interesting turn in the ongoing evolution of the director’s career. “Steven has always loved history and has made many movies with a historical context—‘Empire of the Sun,’ ‘Schindler's List,’ ‘Saving Private Ryan’—and I think he recognized that some of the most interesting characters came from history,” she observes. 

"the most intimate way to show the power of Lincoln’s achievements as President"

“But Steven knew that with Lincoln, he wouldn’t create a conventional biopic. Instead, he and Tony attempted to find the most intimate way to show the power of Lincoln’s achievements as President, through the exploration of the end of slavery and other key events that took place during his presidency.”

Kushner tackled a draft adaptation of the 800 page book and produced a 500 page screenplay, a veritable brick of a manuscript, which he gave to Spielberg. The director recalls: “It was one of the most brilliant things I had ever read—but it was sprawling, epic, and just impractical as a motion picture. As I read it, though, I thought that the most compelling thing of all that Tony had done was a 70-page stretch on the fight to pass the 13th Amendment.” 

Kushner dove back into writing for another two years, trying to trim that draft into a leaner version. Then, out of the blue, he received a call from Spielberg. 

“I was driving in Connecticut when he called on the cell phone,” Kushner recalls. “He said, ‘I’m going to make a suggestion that you might think is crazy, but what if we focus just on the month of January and the passage of the 13th Amendment?’ I remember I had to pull my car over because I started to feel dizzy. Steven said, ‘I find this part of the story enormously exciting and moving.’ And the more he spoke, the more I felt this was a daring decision and was going to really surprise people. This was going to be a story about Lincoln with which most people are unfamiliar.” 

He continues: “We both felt it was incredibly timely, because in this day and age when so many people have lost faith in the idea of governance, it’s a story that shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system. That month was also a lens through which you could see Lincoln with real clarity. It had all the ingredients that characterize him— his family life, his emotional life and his political genius. And it had the suspense of a real crisis. He faced a central dilemma: could he accomplish the end of human slavery while holding the Union together, and could he do it before the Confederacy surrendered?“

"an act of interpretation"

While Kushner utilized his decade of exhaustive research and plucked many real phrases from historical records for the characters, much of what he wrote came from a mix of research and imagination. “One of the great things about this story is that we know that these events occurred but we don’t know very much about what was said, so that gave me a certain amount of license and I was glad to have it. Writing this screenplay was, as it could only be, an act of interpretation.” 

* Insider Briefing is an edited extract by Andrew L. Urban from the background briefing notes to the film.

Published February 7, 2012

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Steven Spielberg



Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

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