When all was said and done, screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) felt that although director Steven Spielberg had optioned the astounding book A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, he would only use a particular slice of it. He felt that the story of Lincoln had to be about the passage of the 13th Amendment and its abolition of slavery.
“I had known Doris' work. I'd read everything else she'd written and I've always thought she's an extraordinary writer and shaper of narrative,” Kushner said. There were many books about Lincoln that he had read, and noticed that each one presented a different person.
“They're all recognizably Lincoln but there are many ways to interpret what Lincoln did. He left both an enormous amount of information, an enormous amount of observational information for people who were there with him, and also left very little. There are no diaries.”
Lincoln famously refused to talk about his childhood and he left few personal letters. “He was a very private guy, and so it makes him a figure that can be interpreted in a lot of different ways,” Kushner said. “I think you sort of have to find the Lincoln that speaks most to you… and for Steven, me and Daniel [Day Lewis], it was Doris’ Lincoln.”
Although that came in the form of the epic A Team of Rivals, filmmakers only utilized a particular few weeks from Lincoln’s life, his final weeks in fact. Having Goodwin’s book as a guide allowed everyone involved in the Lincoln movie to fill in many other blanks when it comes to Lincoln history.
“Doris' sense of who Lincoln was and how he did what he did became really the guiding spirit for the film,” the screenwriter said. “I think it's the Kearns Goodwinian Lincoln that we follow. I talked to Doris two or three times a month, the whole time I was working on the script, and with great joy.”
Kushner marveled at the cast that came together once Daniel Day Lewis said yes to portraying the iconic American figure. Sally Field joined as Abe’s wife, Joseph Gordon Levitt agreed to play Lincoln’s oldest son and a bevy of superstars were cast to portray the politicos of the time including Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes and James Spader.
“Steven made a huge effort, after Daniel said yes to playing Lincoln, to finding an astonishing company of actors, and people who like Joe and Sally really have a great comfort with language processing skills and can really act through words,” Kushner said. "Daniel is a very great actor, and we wanted him to be surrounded with a company of astonishing talent -- and I think that that's what makes the movie as good as it is, these people that create intensity, integrity and intelligence.”
After studying the world of Lincoln, Kushner concludes that the loss of the president at the hands of an assassin’s bullet is perhaps the greatest crime in history. “The murder of Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865, was a great catastrophe for the human race,” he admitted.
“A hundred years of Jim Crow segregation that followed might not have been entirely avoidable by Lincoln but I think he would have been able to use the time immediately after the war a great deal better. He was literally intending malice towards none and charity towards all."
Lincoln would have treated the South with more respect and as such, years of deeply divided civil rights fights may have been less bloody. “Had the South been treated better in the early days of Reconstruction it might have progressed a great deal more than it did. And certain elements of Southern resentment, which became breeding grounds of a kind of race hatred, might never have happened,” he said.
Yet, the screenwriter feels that the country has still made great strides. “I think that one of the things that Steven really wanted to do with this movie and I was really happy to be a part of, is that people like Abraham Lincoln come along once every, as Mary [Lincoln] says, once every, five or six generations at best,” Kushner said.
“This is somebody on the level, I think, of Michelangelo or Mozart, or Albert Einstein. The real trick I think of telling this story is to show that he may have been the greatest virtuoso of the machinery of democratic government that ever lived. But that doesn't mean the machinery doesn't work without him.”
As Movie Fanatic discusses in our Lincoln review, there is an optimism that Kushner believes starts with Goodwin’s book. “We're living in a period now where there is an African-American who's President of the United States and same-sex marriage has now become, increasingly, the law of many states and [the] Defense of Marriage Act was overturned by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals by a Reagan appointee! I think there's great cause,” Kushner said. “The question of human rights, the struggle for justice is never ending.”
It is also reflected in the leader of Lincoln, Spielberg. “He’s a deeply optimistic artist of profoundly democratic -- small d -- democratic impulse. He believes in people,” Kushner said. “He believes that people's entertainment should be rich and deep and complicated, and that that will provide entertainment that people really want to be challenged and to learn things and to grow as well as to have fun.”