Long-gestating ‘Lincoln’ driven by performances

PGA Awards: David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Motion Pictures

Steven Spielberg has been nursing his idea for a movie about Abraham Lincoln for so long that it predated American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln and his presidential Cabinet, “Team of Rivals.”

The book — acclaimed for its perceptive and fresh stance on Union strategies for ending the Civil War, with Lincoln managing and finessing a bevy of prickly and ambitious White House colleagues and allies — provided Spielberg with a specific narrative spine and focus, which also meant continuing changes to script versions written by John Logan and Paul Webb.

Tony Kushner, who had previously worked with Spielberg on “Munich,” entered the project and, with Goodwin’s book as a key though not exclusive basis for the film, wrote the final script version.

Producer Kathleen Kennedy has said “Lincoln” — set for December release — is a performance-driven film, which is why the cast is striking even by Spielberg’s standards. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln in the final four months of his life and presidency, engaged in passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to solidify the Emancipation Proclamation.

Supporting Lewis are Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones as congressional anti-slavery firebrand Thaddeus Stevens; Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; Jared Harris as the Union’s most successful commanding general, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant; John Hawkes as Col. Robert Latham; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s eldest son.

The film’s dramatic focus, Spielberg says, is on the work in the Lincoln White House, the efforts by Lincoln to steer events, and the obstacles in his way.

A fascinating aspect of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is how it may serve as a movie bookend of sorts to a great biopic by one of Spielberg’s key influences, John Ford, and his sublime 1939 “Young Mr. Lincoln,” starring a quietly stunning Henry Fonda. Ford’s depiction of Lincoln is one of a potentially great mind in formation, still a country lawyer and far from the visionary president. Spielberg’s Lincoln, having served a war-filled first term and early on into his second, is managing the war on the battlefront (reportedly unseen in the movie) and the fierce one in Washington, centered on finally abolishing slavery once and for all.

Spielberg: Empire of the stunner | Long-gestating ‘Lincoln’ driven by performances | Guild draws line on producer credit