With the recent presidential election, America is still contending with arguments and disagreements between the political parties on how to run the country. The same was true nearly 150 years ago, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, giving slaves their freedom. The new historical biography film ‘Lincoln,’ which is now playing in select theaters and expands wide on Friday, shows the personal and professional struggles the famed president faced during his time in the White House. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who directed ‘Lincoln,’ was joined by actors Daniel Day-Lewis, who played the title character, Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as screenwriter Tony Kushner, recently to discuss the movie, which is already generating Oscar buzz.
‘Lincoln’ follows the title character, the 16th president of the United States (played by Day-Lewis) as he pushes for the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. As the Civil War rages on, the president must also contend with the continued carnage on the battlefield, and the fights he even experiences with members in his own cabinet over the decision to emancipate the slaves. The anti-abolitionist Democrats will be tested against Lincoln’s moderates and the more zealous anti-slavery radicals of the young Republican Party.
Lincoln must also deal with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (portrayed by Field), as she struggles with the deaths of several of their sons, and the estrangement he faces with his college-age son Robert (played by Gordon-Levitt), who returns home from Harvard to join the Union army.
Day-Lewis first met with Spielberg in Ireland eight years ago to discuss accepting the title role. After Kushner convinced the director that he had to helm the biography, the filmmaker began contemplating which actor would best personify the esteemed president. As Spielberg began talking with the Oscar-winning actor, he realized he couldn’t make the film without Day-Lewis in the title role.
However, Day-Lewis revealed that he was initially hesitant to portray the respected president, because he didn’t “want to stain the reputation of the greatest president America’s ever seen.” The actor said that he knew little about Lincoln, except for a few things from the Gettysburg Address and his first inaugural speech. But after meeting with Spielberg, and reading Kushner’s script and ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,’ the Doris Kearns Goodwin book on which the movie is based, he became surprised by the president’s humor and the fact that he was very accessible. So the actor heavily considered playing the storied leader.
While Spielberg was persistent on casting Day-Lewis as Lincoln, the actor didn’t form a strong bond with some of his co-stars on the set, which reflected the president’s somewhat distant relationships with his wife and children. Field said she spent a long time trying to become Mary, but she didn’t see Day-Lewis often, despite needing to create an intimate relationship between their two characters. The Emmy-winning actress said she texted her co-star for seven months before shooting began, but didn’t truly develop an intimate relationship with Day-Lewis before they began shooting.
Gordon-Levitt said he finally truly met Day-Lewis on the last day of shooting, when his co-star arrived to the set in jeans and a T-shirt. While the actors had a great time, ‘Lincoln’ focused on the president and his eldest son’s strained relationship. Lincoln and Robert were estranged, as the president was often away for up to six months a year for his judicial circuit work, political campaigns and political office. Lincoln’s aloof relationship with Robert was undoubtedly caused by his disciplinarian father, who left him and his older sister alone when he was only five-years-old after his mother died.
Gordon-Levitt added that he learned about his character from his conversations with the people around him, including Kushner and Field. The actor began to realize that Robert had a fascinating, strained relationship with his father. Robert wanted to sign up for the Union Army, but his parents wouldn’t let him. This led him to feel ashamed and cowardly, because everyone else his age was signing up for the army. The actor felt that was hypocritical of Lincoln, as he was perpetuating war while also keeping his son from fighting. He also felt that while people deify Lincoln, the film shows that he was, indeed, human.
Spielberg feels that audiences will embrace the actors in the film, as the many well-known actors disappear into their characters within seconds. After five minutes, the actors become anonymous, as they truly became their characters, “which is the great part of hiring talented actors,” the director said. He added that he’s proud that the actors were able to convince audiences that they really are who they’re playing.
Spielberg points to such acclaimed films as ‘The King’s Speech’ to prove that political films aren’t going out of favor. Many people weren’t familiar with the British king who reigned before Queen Elizabeth II, but the historical biography was still acclaimed and won several Academy Awards.
While Spielberg also said that he didn’t make ‘Lincoln’ because of today’s politics, he was interested to see how audiences would interpret the film with context to today. He added that “the Founding Fathers put together the principals of a Democratic government that are sound, and the process from 150 years ago is not much different than today.” But the director also said that he is interested in seeing how audiences will contemporize the film, as there are tremendous similarities between politics then and today.
Spielberg also became involved with the film because of his “personal fascination with the myth of Lincoln.” The filmmaker wanted to prove that there was more to the president than what the public knows, particularly since there hasn’t been a film solely based on him since the 1930s.
While Spielberg wanted to also show that what Lincoln did during the Civil War wasn’t illegal, and was actually noble, the director also wanted to show there was still a bit of murkiness to him. He had a depressed psyche, as the war began halfway through his first term, and over 600,000 soldiers were killed in battle. While he also lost several sons during his life, Spielberg was amazed that Lincoln was able to go through life with a moral compass.
While Lincoln was a quiet, personal man, not leaving behind many personal letters or diaries, Spielberg’s historical drama showed the true human nature the 16th president contended with during his leadership. While he failed to make lasting connections with his children, particularly Robert, or Mary, he still aimed to do whatever was necessary to protect his country and his family. ‘Lincoln’ not only shows the dedicated nature of the American leader, but also the devoted performances of the actors as well.
Written by: Karen Benardello