Kushner explains how he brought Lincoln to life
Posted: December 7, 2012 at 3:55 a.m.
LITTLE ROCK To begin to tell the story of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War in a way that didn’t seem as stiff as a glory shot of a memorial or as outlandish as the sight of the 16th president staking vampires, screenwriter Tony Kushner chose to begin Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln in a corner of Arkansas (56 miles south of Little Rock, to be exact) where Union troops repelled a Confederate attack along the Saline River on April 29-30, 1864. One thousand Confederate troops and 700 Union soldiers died in the attack.
While the site, Jenkins Ferry, is now a state park, isn’t as wellknown as Gettysburg, Pa., or Shiloh, Tenn., Kushner, speaking from his home in New York, says that the battle offered a unique way of beginning Lincoln.
“It opens with the scene from Jenkins Ferry, which is an Arkansas Civil War battle. I was looking for a battle around the time — from ’64. And I wanted a battle where African-American Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers came head to head.
“I was going through various books about different Civil War battles, and I was really struck by the fact that it happened in this flooded field. It was a fight with men knee-deep in water. There was something very haunting to me about that. The people in the Civil War had to fight under all sorts of horrendous conditions.”
Although Kushner and Spielberg were able to re-create the horror and the heroism of the battle, the two, working in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, spend most of the film recalling how Lincoln consumed the final months of his life ensuring the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution made it through the House of Representatives. While Lincoln’s Republican Party controlled the House and the Senate in 1865, they did not have enough votes to pass the amendment.
In the movie, Lincoln (played by two-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood) and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) team up with a trio of lobbyists, W.N. Bilbo (James Spader, Boston Legal), Congressman Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Col. Robert W. Latham (John Hawkes), to entice Democrats to vote in their favor.
According to Kushner, the legislative wrestling was as eventful as any battlefield skirmish. “What makes drama interesting is that people are struggling with issues that are real and dense and complicated in no way oblivious to them,” he says. “When a representative in the House of Representatives says, ‘We need five votes for this amendment and if I’m seen as voting for this amendment that frees black people and then go back to my home district, which is extremely racist, I might get shot.’
“I don’t think he’s speaking hyperbolically. He’s terrified for his safety and also for his viability as an elected official. It takes moral courage, fighting your way through that kind of fear to doing the right thing. In the film, some people do it, and some people don’t. I don’t know if it’s something obvious that’s glaring them in the face. In 1865, it was not an easy thing to do for some people, and the fact that some of them did it for noble and ignoble reasons is sort of what the film’s about.”
He adds, “Lobbyists have been around for a long time. These guys aren’t lobbyists in the sense that they aren’t working for an outside corporation. They worked directly for the president of the United States. They’re kind of in-house lobbyists. That kind of advocacy work is part of what makes government tick. Sometimes they’re helping Abraham Lincoln make sure the Thirteenth Amendment gets passed, and sometimes they’re people who are making sure corn subsidies don’t get tampered with. It’s easier to root for this kind of thing when the cause is just.”
A DIFFERENT SON OF THE SOUTH
Kushner recalls going through dozens of books in addition to Goodwin’s for his research, but his impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War were actually formed much earlier. The 56-yearold Manhattan native is the son of orchestra conductor William Kushner and bassoonist Sylvia Deutscher, and he spent the vast majority of his youth growing up south of the Mason-Dixon Line in Lake Charles, La.
“Primarily, my impression of Lincoln was from my father, who was a great admirer of Lincoln’s. I grew up in the Deep South, but I grew up in a liberal Jewish household. I’m sure that Lincoln was not as admired in the houses of many of my friends as he was in my house,” Kushner says.
“The Civil War in school was called ‘The War of Southern Independence’ or ‘The War of Northern Aggression’ sometimes. I knew enough from talking to my parents that that was a misnomer. The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, although there were many heroic people in the war.”
Kushner won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony and an Emmy for his play and later HBO miniseries Angels in America, and he earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing Spielberg’s film Munich. Nonetheless, he was careful about putting words in Lincoln’s mouth.
For those who fell asleep during history class, many of the sometimes scatological stories Day-Lewis delivers in the film come not from Kushner’s imagination but the recollections of those who knew the president.
“It’s not a documentary, it’s a fictional film, so I had to get comfortable writing lines for him. We don’t know if he actually told these stories or not,” he says. “I came to really enjoy writing Lincoln as a character. But I’m not a natural-born inventor or rememberer of stories, so I didn’t feel like I wanted to make up a new story that Lincoln told. I kind of stuck with the ones I found in the research that I was doing.”
Kushner and Spielberg also recount events that happened but haven’t been depicted on screen before. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Lincoln is assassinated, but Kushner and Spielberg chose to recall the death the way his young son Tad learned of it.
“I had never heard before that Tad was in another theater, and when I read that, I was very moved by the account. I think that Tad is a very heartbreaking figure in American history. The loss of Lincoln was catastrophic for the world and for the United States, North and South, but on a very, very deep and personal level, this little kid lost his father and in a way his best friend,” he says.
“I’m proud of the fact that the film doesn’t mention the name of John Wilkes Booth,” he adds. “It’s a strong possibility that had Lincoln lived, Reconstruction would have gone a very different way, and a great deal of horror might have been avoided, with 100 years of Reconstruction. I was very happy to find a way to deal with the assassination that didn’t require us to give Booth his moment.”
WHAT LINCOLN MEANS FOR THE FUTURE
Lincoln has been a success at the box office and is being touted as a potential Academy Award contender. Nonetheless, Kushner says he faced a tougher audience at a recent screening he attended for Lincoln: Lincoln’s current successor. “We went to the White House two weeks ago and showed the movie to the first African-American president, and that was an amazing experience,” Kushner says. “And [Rep.] John Lewis was there in the audience, a veteran of the struggle of African-Americans to achieve civil rights. It’s all too often a temptation for people to get lost in despair, which is robbing ourselves of a reason to believe that through democratic means, extraordinary change can happen.”
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 12/07/2012