The award-winning director has been planning this biopic of the 16th US president for years. So will it be a sweeping Spielberg epic?
Should Lincoln fail to manifest as a late era triumph for Steven Spielberg, it will not be for lack of preparation. A new book due to be published later this month in the UK, Spielberg: A Retrospective, reveals the film-maker has been planning this forthcoming biopic almost since childhood, when he was taken to Washington DC by an uncle to view the imposing Lincoln Memorial. A longstanding fascination with Abraham Lincoln developed, culminating in a promise made to the historical writer Doris Kearns Goodwin that Spielberg would option her bookTeam of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln before it was even written. The film-maker has since spent much of the past decade waiting patiently for screenwriters to filter it into the perfect celluloid snapshot of the 16th president of the United States’ life.
Goodwin’s book is largely about Lincoln’s mercurial working relationship with the various members of his cabinet between 1861 and 1865, many of whom had run against him in the 1860 presidential election (hence the term “team of rivals”). The full trailer for the film, which hit the web yesterday, hints that Spielberg may have borrowed his source’s view of the president as an arbitrator and reconciler who used his mediating skills to bring about the abolition of slavery and achieve victory in the American civil war. Lincoln has the feel of a project which will present a panoramic version of the period, rather than the more acute take one might have expected when Spielberg cast Daniel Day Lewis in the lead.
There is little hint here of Day Lewis’s monolithic performance as the oil baron Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, for instance. His Lincoln is sure-spoken, but only briefly theatrical in a short but determined speech about the need to abolish slavery “now now now”. The famous Gettysburg address is given over to David Oyelowo’s Union cavalryman, while a variety of political figures, from David Strathairn as Lincoln’s secretary of state William Seward to Jackie Earl Haley’s confederate vice president Alexander H Stephens, raise their heads prominently above the parapet as they peck at poor old Abe like snapping ganders.
A sweeping Spielberg epic then, no doubt, with the obligatory grand John Williams score, but one which appears to have an impressive level of detail at its core and an inclusive view of the men and women who helped the president to his greatest triumphs. Just look at that cast list: Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln,Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the first couple’s son, Jared Harris as Union general Ulysses S Grant, Tim Blake Nelson as New York congressman Richard Schell, James Spader as Democrat William N Bilboe, Walton Goggins, Bruce McGill. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has apparently condensed most of the action down to the turbulent last few months of Lincoln’s life, but it feels like a rich maelstrom of political intrigue nonetheless.
Lincoln arrives in cinemas on 9 November in the US and 25 January in the UK. It is clearly being pitched as a serious Oscar-contender – but might Spielberg’s fascination for his subject end up weighing the whole thing down a little? Or are you expecting the big man to pick up his fifth Oscar come next February’s annual Academy get-together for what may be his most ambitious film so far?