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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It’s too bad Lincoln could not have snatched McClellan’s horse from under him, so to speak. But after the election, notes Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, “Lincoln knew that unless slavery was gone, the war wasn’t really going to end.” So although the movie is based in part on Goodwin’s book, Kushner says, Lincoln didn’t begin to coalesce until Spielberg said, “Why don’t we make a movie about passing the 13th Amendment?”


Kushner’s own most prominent work is the greatly acclaimed play Angels in America: angels, Mormons, Valium, Roy Cohn, people dying of AIDS. So it’s not as though he sticks to the tried and true. But he says his first reaction to Spielberg’s amendment notion was: This is the first serious movie about Lincoln in seventy-odd years! We can’t base it on that!

In January 1865, Lincoln has just been re-elected and the war is nearly won. The Emancipation Proclamation, laid down by the president under what he claimed to be special wartime powers, abolishes slavery only within areas “in rebellion” against the Union and perhaps not permanently even there. So while Lincoln’s administration has got a harpoon into slavery, the monster could still, “with one ‘flop’ of his tail, send us all into eternity.”

That turn of metaphor is quoted in Goodwin’s book. But the battle for the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery nationwide and permanently, is confined to 5 of her 754 pages. “I don't like biopics that trot you through years and years of a very rich and complicated life,” Kushner says. “I had thought I would go from September 1863 to the assassination, focusing on the relationship of Lincoln and Salmon Chase. Three times I started, got to a hundred or so pages, and never got farther than January 1864. You could make a very long miniseries out of any week Lincoln occupied the White House.”

He sent Goodwin draft after draft of the script, which at one point was up to 500 pages. “Tony originally had Kate in,” says Goodwin, “and if the film had been 25 hours long....” Then Spielberg brought up the 13th Amendment, which the Chases had nothing to do with.

In the course of six years working on the script, Kushner did a great deal of original research, which kept spreading. For example: “I was looking for a play Lincoln might have seen in early March of ’65...[and] I found a Romeo and Juliet starring Avonia Jones, from Richmond, who was rumored to be a Confederate sympathizer—she left the country immediately after the war, went to England and became an acting teacher, and one of her pupils was Belle Boyd, a famous Confederate spy. And the guy who was supposed to be in Romeo and Juliet with her was replaced at the last moment by John Wilkes Booth—who was plotting then to kidnap Lincoln. I thought, ‘I’ve discovered another member of the conspiracy!’”

Avonia didn’t fit in Lincoln, so she too had to go—but the Nashville lawyer W.N. Bilbo, another one of the obscure figures Kushner found, survived. And as played by James Spader, Bilbo, who appears nowhere in Team of Rivals, nearly steals the show as a political operative who helps round up votes for the amendment, offering jobs and flashing greenbacks to conceivably swayable Democrats and border-state Republicans.

If another director went to a major studio with a drama of legislation, he’d be told to run it over to PBS. Even there, it might be greeted with tight smiles. But although “people accuse Steven of going for the lowest common denominator and that kind of thing,” says Kushner, “he is willing to take big chances.” And nobody has ever accused Spielberg of not knowing where the story is, or how to move it along.

Spielberg had talked to Liam Neeson, who starred in his Schindler’s List, about playing Lincoln. Neeson had the height. “But this is Daniel’s role,” Spielberg says. “This is not one of my absent-father movies. But Lincoln could be in the same room with you, and he would go absent on you, he would not be there, he would be in process, working something out. I don’t know anybody who could have shown that except Daniel.”


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