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The Eternal Reach: How Steven Spielberg’s evolving ideas continue to ignite cinema

There was something very telling watching Steven Spielberg at the AFI Fest last year introducing TinTin. He did two things. He downplayed our expectations of the movie we were about to see and he breathlessly announced he was still in Virginia filming Lincoln. His enthusiasm for his subject matter might just be the thing that keeps him fumbling towards greatness nearly every year. He was releasing two films — TinTin and War Horse and yet the thing he wanted to talk about more was Lincoln.

In a recent Q&A about Lincoln held on Yahoo Movies, Spielberg was asked whether he had any fear taking on the daunting subject of Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg said,

“I require fear in order to run towards something. Fear never makes me run away from anything but the more scared I am, the more frightened I am I have to run into what’s scaring me to try to figure out what it is because it has power, it has sway over me, fear. It has a certain kind of power and I don’t like losing control so things that frighten me make me go to it, to embrace it, to understand it, which gives me a better understanding of myself and in that case, the work that I’m most proudest of is the work that I’m afraid of.”

His best films, in his mind, were those he was most afraid of making. By all accounts, Jaws was a difficult production that he — at the age of 28 — just barely pulled off. Everyone, including Richard Dreyfuss, was convinced it would bomb. And yet, it became arguably the best film of his career. When naming the best films of Spielberg’s career after being asked where I thought Lincoln stood in his collection, I named the solid canon, Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., Raiders and Schindler’s List. I put Lincoln ahead of Saving Private Ryan, though I know for many that’s sacrilege. You see, Spielberg’s classics have winnowed themselves through us, all the way through to our bones. They’re part of the mortar between the bricks that we’ve built over the last thirty-seven years, in Hollywood and in our own lives. But then that’s my own generation’s eye view.

It struck me as something altogether mesmerizing to watch Spielberg talk about Lincoln. The meaning of that interview didn’t really hit home until I’d seen the film: an amalgam of prolific storytellers determined to do justice to their subject. Lincoln himself was an infamous storyteller, so is Doris Kearns Goodwin who can talk at length about all US Presidents but has a special affection for Lincoln. Tony Kushner, an equally dedicated storyteller joining forces with Spielberg, one of cinema’s greatest storytellers. And finally, Daniel Day-Lewis who says he was never much of one, really does tell his own stories as an actor. All of these forces working together make Lincoln work as well as it does.

The daunting task was not undertaken lightly, as Spielberg says:

“After Daniel Day-Lewis committed to playing Lincoln, we postponed filming for a year so we actually spent a year with Tony Kushner, Daniel and myself in conversation, Daniel and I had an entire year to get to know each other. We became friends during that year and we were friends on the first day of shooting, so all of the big narrative adjustments in the story, but also some of the choices that Daniel could have made and other characters, other actors, these choices were available for them to make as well. Sometimes that was done, or at least I formulated my own ideas during that entire year of exploration. So by the time we got ready to shoot Lincoln, and I had spent the time with the other actors, most of my work was with everybody else, with Tommy Lee Jones, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with Sally Field, with David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State Seward, because we hadn’t spent that time discussing this together. We had it down to — never a science because that isn’t what we do – but when we made adjustments, the two of us – director/actor there were little nudges this way and that way, no huge epiphany that I had in the middle of the night that changed everything. The script was solid and beautiful – it was just details, because the devil is in the details. Art is in the details and there are so many details that Daniel and I discovered during that four months of shooting that really took the movie to a whole different level.”

Listening to Spielberg talk about Lincoln is to remember what value he’s brought not just to American film but to our culture — his endless curiosity probably motivated him to pursue filmmaking in the first place and that trait has served him well for three decades. We all know Spielberg’s story, don’t we? A valley kid from a broken home who felt a bit out of place growing up, but who found himself behind the lens. He was and is one of the templates, in fact, for generations of film student in his wake. His curiosity and attention to detail resulted in excavating so much we remember from World War II, on the allies side in Saving Private Ryan, and deep inside the Holocaust with Schindler’s List. His peculiar interests seem to range from sci-fi, to sharks, to airplanes, to dinosaurs, to great filmmakers from the past, like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, to the special effects technology of today — even when he fails, his failures are still so much better than most successes.

The Color Purple and Amistad were two prior attempts to wave his magic wand and make racism and discrimination go away; it was as if he thought if he just makes the right kind of movie that would change the world. His intentions have been appreciated and they’ve been criticized. Somehow, though, Lincoln reaches a different level for Spielberg. He explains here that this has been brewing for over a decade:

“Lincoln was one of my favorite figures in the American landscape, as a leader and as a role model and as a brilliant thinker, so I was always a student interested in Abraham Lincoln but it wasn’t until I met Doris Kearns Goodwin in 1999 in a meeting unrelated to Lincoln and I asked her what she was doing next and she said she was writing a book about the Lincoln White House, about the Lincoln presidency. For some reason, at that moment, I realized that whatever she was writing, being such an amazing artist and organizer of history and historical narrative that I wanted to be involved in whatever she was working on, so I asked her, would you ever sell the movie rights to your book to me and she said she would. So that was the first time this really became a reality for me and that was a while ago, that was in ’99.”

Without writing an actual review (it’s embargoed until November 9), Spielberg’s Lincoln is not that far from Schindler’s List. They are both stories about enacting change. The change is specific, and perhaps “small,” in the framing of its time, but it plants seeds for the future that are immeasurable. Spielberg may have finally found his ideal match, though, in choosing to collaborate with Tony Kushner, Daniel Day-Lewis and Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose dedication to Lincoln hovers over the film like a guardian angel; in fact, the writer was continually asked questions by Spielberg to make sure every last detail was right.

At the screening that accompanied the Q&A, Spielberg showed it to students and teachers rather than journalists, although it did also play at the New York Film Festival. When asked why he showed it at the university, Spielberg said:

“Put it this way, students and teachers are first wave of people I’m interested in hearing responses from about history. You are the first audience that I’m interested in hearing about what you have to say. The truth is that we have a big responsibility in telling the story, and the responsibility is that it’s very possible whenever you make a film about an historically significant character that the film becomes one of the few tools about teaching that character. I don’t agree with that. I think that a movie can only be an adjunct or a supplement to books, to different points of view, to scholars, historians and your own teachers — I said this about Schindler’s List also. Schindler’s List isn’t the only movie about the Holocaust. It’s a minor, little hole in the wall that you can put one eye through and get a sort of 2D look at the holocaust and our interpretation of it based on survivor’s testimony. The same thing with Lincoln. There are so many stories I encourage everyone to read and to learn about Lincoln and let this complement your learning. Do not let this be the only learning you do about Abraham Lincoln during this period of time, the Civil War, and slavery.”

Spielberg’s willingness to dive into history, to run towards something that scares him, separates him from other filmmakers of his generation. Spielberg is way past needing to prove himself — he pretty much owns Hollywood at this point, has a core of dedicated fans who will follow him everywhere and his movies always tend to make money. He brings them in under budget usually and on time. He doesn’t have to spend a whole year with an actor and writer having an eternal conversation about this man, Lincoln. But he did it because it rendered a kind of authenticity you simply would not have otherwise. Perhaps that’s why watching Lincoln feels like a fever dream. It feels like you have been thrust back through time.

Naturally, since we’re enduring a difficult election season, many will wonder about the politics of Lincoln — what it says about America then, and what it says about America now. The Republicans back then stood for freedom, for the most part. There were abolitionists on each side but the Republicans were really the driving force behind progressive change. But Lincoln does two things to bring us up through today. It reminds us how hard it sometimes is for a president to enact controversial, but necessary change. John F. Kennedy sent troops into Mississippi so that the first black college student, James Meredith, could attend Ole Miss. He had to attend with armed guards by his side. Lincoln had to push through the 13th amendment to forever abolish slavery. It was not popular at the time and was so controversial, in fact, that Lincoln was shot because of it. But the Republicans and the Democrats today have mostly swapped responsibility for which party will try hang on to traditional values and which is ready to carry the country forward to a more progressive future. The old Republicans do not exist anymore. Obama had to use his executive power to temporarily legalize some immigrant children because he could not pass the Dream Act with the Republican led Senate. He barely passed Obamacare and that alone has lit the fire of hate throughout much of the country. And finally, he’s the first president to openly support gay marriage. All three of these things could get our president killed, and that is a chilling thought. Lincoln reminds us that it isn’t so hard to imagine.

But the other thing the film reminds us of is how little change took place for African Americans after slavery was abolished. Post-reconstruction saw Jim Crow laws cripple millions of newly freed slaves. Civil rights and desegregation were slow to take hold. And yet, here we are in 2012 and we have a black President, 150 years after Emancipation Proclamation. Still, Spielberg himself did not feel any political driving force with this film:

No, I really was not trying to draw any parallels, that’s certainly up to you if you choose, there are certainly parallels because the democratic process was the same in 1865 as it is today in 2012, so there are going to be many honest parallels that you can draw from this, Tony Kushner and myself pretty much embedded ourselves in books and learning and understanding what it must have been like and Tony found the most beautiful language, which is a language he discovered by reading books written in the 19th century – essays and memoirs so we were pretty much steeped in this period of time and this particular story about this individual but there are obvious similarities to a country divided, a house divided, then and a house divided today.

When speaking of Oscars, there is no way the Academy will be able to resist the look of Lincoln, how it was lit and filmed. Some of the cinematography here is beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a Spielberg movie — this is how Spielberg and Kaminski were inspired:

“We saw a lot of art, a lot of paintings, a lot of Vermeers, we looked at a lot of paintings of the 19th century where artists began allowing natural light to infuse and inspire their work, as opposed to a kind of artistic license to frame the light, and let the light come from places where light doesn’t exist. We were also looking at Andrew Wyeth, 20th century but certainly Andrew Wyeth paintings, really have a tremendous contrast because the 19th-century White House, the office of the President, all the rooms that these scenes take place in, the only had gas lamps and candlelight but there was also sun coming through the windows — it still meant that the table the President was working at still needed some kind of illumination. So the interesting thing was balancing a very hot sun coming through a window with a very very tickle of a candlelight on his writing or on the book he was reading — that gave Janusz Kaminski a tremendous amount of latitude in making a movie that has a lot of contrast.”

So immersed in this subject matter, years in the making, Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis found it difficult to let go of Lincoln. I’m sure that Doris Kearns Goodwin found it difficult to let go of Lincoln after spending ten years of her life writing about him. I have never seen an actor so perfectly capture the spirit of a man as Day-Lewis has in this film. Said Spielberg:

“I still haven’t said goodbye to Lincoln. This is Daniel Day-Lewis sitting next to me, not Abraham Lincoln. I still refuse to part with my view and my experience with Lincoln. It was a very hard day for me, the last day of shooting. I went into Daniel’s trailer not to say goodbye because we’re friends now forever and just basically say, well, it’s over and we’ve done something that we can be proud of and this and that and Daniel, who calls me the Skipper, that was his nickname for me and he said to me, yes, Skipper, I think this is about it and he said it as the man sitting here, not the man you saw there and that was a little bit like I’d fallen through an elevator shaft and hit a cement floor. I was not ready to lose the President at that point. But it had to be done and it had to come to an end and it did.”

Listening to this Q&A before screening Lincoln helped to prepare me for what to expect. By the end of this exquisite film, I found I didn’t want to say goodbye to Lincoln either. But with this film, Spielberg has found a way to bring him back.