“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.)