Special Report

Mr. Lincoln Goes to Hollywood

Steven Spielberg, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner talk about what it takes to wrestle an epic presidency into a feature film

A still from Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. (Photo: David James, SMPSP © 2012 DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved)
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On the set everyone addressed Day-Lewis as “Mr. Lincoln” or “Mr. President.” “That was my idea,” Spielberg says. “I addressed all the actors pretty much by the roles they were playing. When actors stepped off the set they could be whoever they felt they needed to be, but physically on the set I wanted everybody to be in an authentic mood.” He never did that in any of his 49 other directorial efforts. (“I couldn’t address Daniel at all,” says Kushner. “I would send him texts. I called myself ‘Your metaphysical conundrum,’ because as the writer of the movie, I shouldn’t exist.”)

Henry Fonda in Young Mister Lincoln (1939) might as well be a youngish Henry Fonda, or perhaps Mister Roberts, with nose enhancement. Walter Huston in Abraham Lincoln (1930) wears a startling amount of lipstick in the early scenes, and later when waxing either witty or profound he sounds a little like W.C. Fields. Day-Lewis is made to resemble Lincoln more than enough for a good poster shot, but the character’s consistency is beyond verisimilitude.

Lincoln, 6-foot-4, was taller than everyone around him by a greater degree than is Day-Lewis, who is 6-foot-1 1/2. I can’t help thinking that Lincoln’s voice was even less mellow (it was described as high-pitched and thin, and his singing was more recitational than melodious) than the workable, vaguely accented tenor that Day-Lewis has devised. At first acquaintance Lincoln came off gawkier, goofier, uglier than Day-Lewis could very well emulate. If we could reconstitute Lincoln himself, like the T. Rex in Jurassic Park, his looks and carriage might put us off.

Day-Lewis gives us a Lincoln with layers, angles, depths and sparks. He tosses in some authentic-looking flat-footed strides, and at one point stretches unpresidentially across the floor he’s lying on to stoke the fire. More crucially, he conveys Lincoln’s ability to lead not by logic or force but by such devices as timing (knowing when a time is ripe), amusement (he not only got away with laughing at his own stories, sometimes for reasons unclear, but also improved his hold on the audience thereby) and at least making people think he was getting into where they were coming from.

We know that Lincoln was a great writer and highly quotable in conversation, but Lincoln captures him as a verbal tactician. Seward (ably played by David Straithairn) is outraged. He’s yelling at Lincoln for doing something he swore he wouldn’t, something Seward is convinced will be disastrous. Lincoln, unruffled, muses about looking into the seeds of time and seeing which grains will grow, and then says something else that I, and quite possibly Seward, didn’t catch, and then something about time being a great thickener of things. There’s a beat. Seward says he supposes. Another beat. Then he says he has no idea what Lincoln’s talking about.

Here’s a more complicated and masterly example. The whole cabinet is yelling at Lincoln. The Confederacy is about to fall, he’s already proclaimed emancipation, why risk his popularity now by pushing for this amendment? Well, he says affably, he’s not so sure the Emancipation Proclamation will still be binding after the war. He doesn’t recall his attorney general at the time being too excited about it being legal, only that it wasn’t criminal. His tone becomes subtly more backwoodsy, and he makes a squeezy motion with his hands. Then his eyes light up as he recalls defending, back in Illinois, a Mrs. Goings, charged with murdering her violent husband in a heated moment.

Melissa Goings is another figure who doesn’t appear in Team of Rivals, but her case is on the record. In 1857, the newly widowed 70-year-old stood accused of bludgeoning her 77-year-old husband with a piece of firewood. In the most common version of the story, Lincoln, sensing hostility in the judge but sympathy among the townspeople, called for a recess, during which his client disappeared. Back in court, the bailiff accused Lincoln of encouraging her to bolt, and he professed his innocence: “I did not run her off. She wanted to know where she could get a good drink of water, and I told her there was mighty good water in Tennessee.” She was never found, and her bail—$1,000—was forgiven.

In the movie, the cabinet members start laughing as Lincoln reminisces, even though they may be trying to parse precisely what the story has to do with the 13th Amendment. Then he shifts into a crisp, logical explication of the proclamation’s insufficiency. In summary he strikes a personal note; he felt the war demanded it, therefore his oath demanded it, and he hoped it was legal. Shifting gears without a hitch, he tells them what he wants from them: to stand behind him. He gives them another laugh—he compares himself to the windy preacher who, once embarked on a sermon, is too lazy to stop—then he puts his foot down: He’s going to sign the 13th Amendment. His lips press so firmly together they tremble just slightly.

Lincoln’s telling of the Goings case varies slightly from the historical record, but in fact there is an account of Lincoln departing from the record himself, in telling the story differently from the way he does in the movie. “The rule was,” says Kushner, “that we wouldn’t alter anything in a meaningful way from what happened.” Conversations are clearly invented, but I haven’t found anything in the movie that is contradicted by history, except that Grant looks too dressy at Appomattox. (Lee does, for a change, look authentically corpulent at that point in his life.)

Lincoln provides no golden interracial glow. The n-word crops up often enough to help establish the crudeness, acceptedness and breadth of anti-black sentiment in those days. A couple of incidental pop-ups aside, there are three African-American characters, all of them based reliably on history. One is a White House servant and another one, in a nice twist involving Stevens, comes in almost at the end. The third is Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante. Before the amendment comes to a vote, after much lobbying and palm-greasing, there’s an astringent little scene in which she asks Lincoln whether he will accept her people as equals. He doesn’t know her, or her people, he replies. But since they are presumably “bare, forked animals” like everyone else, he says, he will get used to them.


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