Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Lincoln covers the final few months of US President Abraham Lincoln’s life, focusing on his efforts to have the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution passed by the House of Representatives – resulting in the abolition of slavery in the United States of America. Lincoln is teaching us how to reach a consensus and succeed in backstage politics when pressing issues of society need to be solved. So, in essence, it’s a contemporary story told in a historic setting.
The film is produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, the screenplay is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg on his motivation to do the film:
Lincoln project is something that I have been fascinated with all my
life. Like the kid in Minority Report, I used to cut out the profiles of
Presidents in third grade. Lincoln was my favorite profile. (…) As I
got older, I began reading history books and I became like a history
major. I never really majored in history in school but it was my most
favorite subject. (…) I realized that Lincoln changed the history of
Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly portrays President Abraham Lincoln, leading a formidable cast that includes Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, Lukas Haas, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Adam Driver – who will be cast as the villain in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – plays Washington war-room telegraph officer Samuel Beckwith. Kevin Kline makes a cameo appearance as a wounded soldier.
In preparation for The Unfinished Journey (1999) – a 21-minute short film directed by Spielberg and screened at the 2000 Millennium Gala in Washington DC, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial – Spielberg consults historians such as Stephen Ambrose, and Doris Goodwin. Asked about her current projects, Goodwin tells Spielberg that she is writing a book called “Team of Rivals” about Lincoln and his cabinet. Spielberg buys the film rights on the spot.
In the early stages of development, John Logan signs on to write a first draft. It is rewritten by playwright Paul Webb. He prefers to cover the entirety of Lincoln’s term as President. Due to Spielberg’s dissatisfaction with the script, the filming is delayed. He assigns another playwright who impressed Spielberg with his script for Munich (2005): Tony Kushner.
Kushner finds the Lincoln script assignment daunting because “I don’t understand what he did any more than I understand how William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet or Mozart wrote Così fan tutte.” Kushner’s initial 491-page draft focuses on four months in the life of Lincoln, and by 2009 he rewrites it to mostly cover two months in Lincoln’s life when he is preoccupied with adopting the Thirteenth Amendment.
Initially, Liam Neeson is cast as Lincoln, having previously worked with Spielberg in Schindler’s List (1993). In preparation for the role, Neeson studies Lincoln extensively – but leaves the project in 2010, stating that he realized during a table read that the part was not right for him. Neeson suggests Daniel Day-Lewis as his replacement and personally argues him into accepting the part. Spielberg and Kushner fly to Ireland to meet with Day-Lewis, followed by more rewrites before the actor finally agrees (after some more encouragement from Leonardo DiCaprio).
Financing the film takes nearly three years. Spielberg pitches the movie at Paramount, following the purchase of DreamWorks by Paramount’s parent company Viacom, in 2006, but the studio complains the budget, even pared to $50 million, is too high and its subject too close to Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), one of his least commercially successful movies.
Frustrated by the financing problems, Spielberg admits Lincoln came “this close” to premiering on HBO as opposed to premiering in theaters. When DreamWorks sets up a new distribution arrangement with The Walt Disney Company, the studio agrees to take North American rights. 20th Century Fox takes international rights, putting up half the production cost. To lay off some risk, DreamWorks turns to another frequent partner, Participant Media, and the film can finally be made.
Principal photography is completed in 64 days, most of it taking place in Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg, Virginia. A former AMF Bowling plant in Mechanicsville, is used for a set that re-creates the interiors of the White House. “We worked hard to be as historically accurate as possible, all the way to the room where Mary and Lincoln had their scenes,” says production designer Rick Carter. “The wallpaper, rugs, everything was as accurate as it could possibly be.”
According to Director of Photography Janusz Kamiński, he and Spielberg agree on the first day to go for dim lighting that would reflect the use of candles and gaslight in the era. “We knew this was a haunted movie about a man carrying a tremendous burden,” says Rick Carter. “We wanted to go with almost a black-and-white photo yet always be able to pick out what was important in the frame.” The low light is a tool to direct the viewer’s eye. “I wanted to create depth of Lincoln’s character through lighting,” says Kamiński. “In group shots in his office, I set the light so your eye would go to Lincoln.” In later scenes, while the amendment is passed, Kamiński seeks to play against Lincoln’s iconic image. The result is an angelic but natural shot of Lincoln bathed in light. “I wanted to create a very intimate image of this man on the most important day of his life: He’s still a father, and he’s still allocating time to be with his family and his son.”
On set, cast and crew act reverential towards the subject at hand: Conversations between scenes are kept to a whisper, and no one talks to Day-Lewis unless it is necessary. Spielberg, whose typical attire when directing is a baseball cap and jeans, wears suits and ties. He not only addresses Day-Lewis as “Mr. President” but also calls many of the actors by their characters’ names as he immerses himself in American history.
Describing his experience playing Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis says, “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. And that’s, I think, probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people that take the time to discover him… I wish he had stayed [with me] forever.”
“The toughest part about actually making the film,” says Spielberg, “was that it was eventually going to come to an end. After the first day of shooting, I started mourning the last day of shooting. (…) It’s rare that this has ever happened. E.T. might be the only other time.”
Lincoln is shot on 35mm film and cut on Avid, marking the third time that Michael Kahn edits digitally for Spielberg. “Steven saw how efficient it was, how it saved it a lot of time, so we’ve been on Avid ever since,” says Kahn, who was noted for his speed on the Moviola and KEM. He admits that he’s never cut a film comparable to Lincoln before. “This picture has more dialogue, more getting into people’s heads. A lot of editors say dialogue is the hardest thing to make work, and after Lincoln I have to agree. Audiences won’t see our decisions to cut or not to cut, but the decisions are there.”
For his restrained and respectful composition of the film score, John Williams continues to laboriously write his notes by hand with pencil and paper at a piano – rejecting modern technologies and still managing to yield music of his established, superior quality.
Lincoln receives widespread critical acclaim, with major praise directed to the acting, especially Day-Lewis’ performance, as well as the direction and production merits.
Roger Ebert gives the film 4 out of 4 stars and says in his review, “The hallmark of the man, performed so powerfully by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, is calm self-confidence, patience and a willingness to play politics in a realistic way.”
A. O. Scott from The New York Times states the film “is finally a movie about how difficult and costly it has been for the United States to recognize the full and equal humanity of black people” and concludes that the movie is “a rough and noble democratic masterpiece” – a portrait that is “intimate but also decorous, drawn with extraordinary sensitivity and insight and focused, above all, on Lincoln’s character as a politician. This is, in other words, less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson that is energetically staged and alive with moral energy.”
Despite its running time of 150 minutes, the film is also a huge commercial success, proving that a lot of moviegoers approach it as more than just a dull history lesson. In only its first four weekends of wide release, Lincoln grosses more than $275 million worldwide (against a budget of $65 million). Washington insiders see the film as an object lesson in how a president should work with Congress (the film is screened at the White House and the Senate).
The film is nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director for Spielberg, winning Best Actor (Motion Picture – Drama) for Daniel Day-Lewis.
At the Academy Awards, the film is nominated for 12 Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning for Best Production Design and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis – becoming the very first actor to win an acting Oscar for a movie directed by Steven Spielberg.