In freeing Abraham Lincoln from the role of marble monument, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis chipped away at a few things that might have made “Lincoln” a cumbersome movie to watch.
Chief among the cuts was 55 years and 10 months of the 16th president’s life because, Spielberg says, “the last thing we wanted to do — either of us — was to make a biopic.” With screenwriter Tony Kushner, they focused on the last four months of Lincoln’s life and from there attempted to breathe a spirit into a mythic figure starting with, but not limited to, the much-discussed high and airy voice.
“The challenge is how do you turn Lincoln into a flesh-and-blood human being of great compassion with a tremendous proactive heart,” Spielberg said. “Kids are raised with the iconic Lincoln portrait on money, there are statues, and sometimes he’s even parodied during President’s Day commercials. So there was a big challenge ahead of us. So we decided to tell the story of Lincoln at the most critical junction of his career and life.”
That junction is Lincoln’s final four months as he attempts to shepherd passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. “Lincoln” begins and ends with acts of physical violence. Regarding tension, though, the bloodshed pales compared to the tumult that comprises the bulk of the film as Lincoln negotiates, coaxes and bullies passage of the amendment.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 best-seller, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” “Lincoln” presents a civics lesson like the cliché of sausage production: You may prefer not knowing how it gets done. The film also infuses this period of Lincoln’s life with an epic sense of urgency and daring.
“The historian James McPherson said one time that the landscape of the Civil War was so vast that even a gigantic figure like Abraham Lincoln could get lost in it,” Spielberg said. “We never forgot that.”
The odds for passage are presented as bad, and the stakes are high, providing some perspective to our own recent contentious election.
“The three branches of government work just as well now as they did then,” Spielberg said. “The process of legislating a law, there are very few differences. If anything, things were perhaps more vitriolic then, perhaps, than today.I don’t think anybody in the House today would dare call somebody across the aisle a nincompoop.”
Those days were anything but civil.'
"There were shootings and stabbings in those days," Day-Lewis said." Often it wasn’t civil.”
But his Lincoln maintains a calm amid tempestuous forces that circle him. On the smallest scale, the White House’s open door presents nuisances as piddly as property rights. There’s upheaval at home, also. Lincoln faces explosive conflict when his son wishes to enlist. First lady Mary Todd Lincoln fights him aggressively on the matter, having already lost two sons to illness.
But the film’s heft largely arises from Lincoln’s skilled navigation of the amendment because, Spielberg said, “there’s great drama in a great democracy. There’s so much freedom of speech and expression, a chance to air your views without being penalized or incarcerated for them.”
“There was no great epiphany” for finding his character, “but more just a dawning sense of familiarity for a life that isn’t one’s own," Day Lewis said." Where you do the imaginative work of having those experiences in that period of time. And I suppose for me, with all the literature that’s available, the most enlightening things for me were always his own words. That was where the substance of that man came to life for me. Not just through the beautiful speeches, but also his letters. The intelligence and humor of his letters.”
So his Lincoln is capable of forcefulness, but also deftly works a room with wit and charm often a few thoughts ahead of his company.
“It’s difficult, you shouldn’t glibly assume that he’s always a step ahead,” Day-Lewis said. “There’s a danger in that: Somebody could seem insufferable if they’re always reminding you they were ahead of you. But he had in him the quality to be quite ponderous, which was a source of frustration to his cabinet. His process was slow and ponderous. He was searching for conclusions step by step. And it allowed him to make a more far-reaching and far-sighted conclusion.”
In the case of “Lincoln” that conclusion was the urgency in abolishing slavery because the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in September 1862, was an executive order issued during war time. The impending close of the Civil War threatened to render it useless. This realization prompts the negotiations and speeches that drive “Lincoln.”
“Our story is a story of a president who shared his thought process,” Spielberg said. “You see him talking himself into and out of solutions. We’ve taken great measures — hopefully, with very little pain for the audience — to allow us all to be a fly on the wall as Lincoln tries to show how abolishing slavery is an absolute necessity.”