Lincoln: Interview with Spielberg

Abraham Lincoln has long existed on the razor’s edge between myth and flesh-and-blood man.

Yet, now more than ever, Lincoln occupies the public imagination. His very silhouette has morphed into a global symbol of the hope that power can be wielded judiciously.

Lincoln was the only U.S. president to stare down the real possibility that the grand experiment of an American Union might be forever abolished. Or perhaps it is because his very 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.

The idea of Lincoln, and the rarely seen but captivatingly human side of Lincoln, has haunted filmmaker Steven 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.”

It would take Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who previously collaborated on “Munich” together, 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 homed in on just a few short, powerful months in Lincoln’s life. Those few 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.

Says Spielberg: “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 himself 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 enlivened Spielberg. It would, when all was said and done, engage his filmmaking instincts on a different level than any film that has come before in his extensively diverse filmography.

“My movies more often are told through pictures, not words. But in this case, the pictures took second position 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.”

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. “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.”

From the start, Spielberg was acutely aware of a near-infinite library of books that approach Lincoln from a stunning array of perspectives. However, he was longing for a fresh, and more directly human, take.  He found that in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which, on its publication in 2005, became a mega-bestseller, breaking out from the biography shelves as a must-read page-turner.


Spielberg started talking intently to Goodwin about her book several years before she even finished it. They met at the Millennium celebration in Washington where he asked her what she was working on. He took a profound interest in it and it was several years before it was finished. “He was out making other movies, and every now and then he’d call from the set and ask, ‘Well, what did Lincoln do today?’ Then one day, he optioned the book,” she recalls.


When it was released, the rousing reaction to Goodwin’s book revealed that she had hit upon a part of Lincoln that people were hungry to know more about right now: how he made profound national changes for the better in such fiercely divided times. The “team of rivals” in the title refers to the three opponents Lincoln vied against in the 1860 presidential election—only to invite each bitterly defeated competitor into his cabinet.  This bold move would embody Lincoln’s most outstanding qualities: his talent for getting along with his opponents, his political genius and his steady compass always pointing to the universal truths of justice and civil rights and a more perfect union.


It would also lie at the heart of perhaps his most singular accomplishment: moving the nation to support “the new birth of freedom” and end the unconscionable practice of slavery at the conclusion of the Civil War—not just symbolically but via a constitutional amendment that would make abolition a permanent foundation of the law of the land.


How did he do it? Goodwin says he was driven by understanding the unthinkable consequences of not succeeding. “I think it was key for Lincoln to get the 13th Amendment passed, because if it was part of our Constitution—and he so revered the U.S. Constitution—then he knew slavery would be undone in this country forever and ever. So he put all of his political skills, every bit of his human relationships, every bit of his ability to work his inner circle, into passing the 13th Amendment passing. Then, and only then, could he know that slavery had finally ended.”


She adds:  “I think it came down to the belief he always had about this country—that it could be, as he often said, a beacon of hope around the world.”


Spielberg found the entirety of Goodwin’s book riveting. “You could find a feature- length film story on very nearly every page of Doris’ book,” muses the director. “But the most important thing was the spirit of the man she captured. Whatever else we did, I felt it was essential to be absolutely true to that.”


Early on, Goodwin invited Spielberg and Tony Kushner to sit at a roundtable of Lincoln experts to give them a sense of the challenging territory they’d be diving into—and she was taken aback by how well they fit right in. “It was an incredible day,” she recalls.  “Afterwards, I got e-mail from all these historians about how stunned they were at how much Steven knew about Lincoln, the Civil War, abolition, Mary, everything. Right after, Tony and I started e-mailing each other back and forth about every aspect of Lincoln, and I was convinced no two people could do a better job than they could.”