Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Political impasse in Spielberg's Lincoln invites comparisons to current D.C. gridlock

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Los ANGELES -- The usual film disclaimer at the end of most films reads: Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

Obviously, any resemblance between America's 16th president and the way he is presented by British actor Daniel Day-Lewis in director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is painstakingly deliberate.

What's coincidental, Spielberg insists, is the timing.

One has reason to be a little suspicious. Adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Enemies: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the movie focuses on Lincoln's heroic, albeit down-and-dirty efforts to pass the 13th Amendment banning slavery.

It is set in wartime when the division between Democrat and Republican was deemed insurmountable.

The movie has obvious resonance in the era when a black president is facing similarly intractable forces in Congress and the Senate.

"People say, 'Oh, you made it because of what's happening in politics today,'" Spielberg says.

"No, we were ready to make it during the Bush administration," he says with a laugh. "I would have been very happy to have made Lincoln in the year 2000, the year after I met Doris Kearns Goodwin."

Throughout most of his illustrious career, Spielberg had been keen on bringing a Lincoln story to the screen. Notwithstanding a frivolous movie about the president's secret career as a vampire hunter, there have been few Hollywood movies made about Lincoln since the '30s, Spielberg says.

"Lincoln has been reduced to statuary over the last 60 years or more, because there's been more written about Lincoln than movies made about him or television portraying him," he says. "He's kind of a stranger to our industry, to this medium.

"So, I just found that my fascination with Lincoln, which started as a child, got to the point where after reading so much about him, I thought there was a chance to tell a segment of his life to moviegoers, and that's how this whole fascination began."

Spielberg was privy to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Goodwin's book about Lincoln's political gifts while she was writing it, and optioned it as a film before it was published. Hence, the project was on the director's back burner for a long time.

"It took her a couple years to write the book. It took us more than a couple years to get the screenplay written," Spielberg says. "So I wasn't waiting for a certain time.

Another delay was waiting for the famously immersive Oscar-winning actor Day-Lewis to assent to the role. When Day-Lewis initially turned it down, Spielberg had "a very healthy flirt" with Liam Neeson to take the role. Spielberg ultimately concluded it was Day-Lewis or no one.

"I had just accepted the fact that I would make Lincoln if Daniel decided to play him, and I would not make Lincoln had Daniel decided not to play him," Spielberg says. "It was as simple as that. It had gotten to that point with me."

The film was made and released in an election year when the themes of the movie seem especially pertinent, Spielberg acknowledges.

"(But) it had nothing to do current politics. It had nothing to do with holding a mirror up to the way we conduct our business on Capitol Hill today," he says. "This was meant to be a story, a Lincoln portrait, if you will."

Spielberg does allow that the release of the film was timed for after the presidential election and not before. A dependable fundraiser for the Democratic party, the director did not want to risk causing any confusion about the Republican-Democrat dynamic in Lincoln's time (Abe was a Republican) and contemporary times.

"The political ideologies of both parties have switched 180 degrees in 150 years. It was just too confusing," Spielberg says. "Everybody is claiming Lincoln as their own.

"And everybody should claim Lincoln as their own, because he represents all of us, and what he did basically provided the opportunities that all of us are enjoying today," he says.

"I just wanted people to talk about the film, not talk about the election cycle. So, I thought it was safer to let people talk about film during the election cycle in this run-up with ads on TV and posters going up and all that, but the actual debut of the film should happen after the election's been decided," he says. "That was my feeling."

Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln opens in Winnipeg Friday, Nov. 16.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 G1

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About Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

His dad was Winnipeg musician Jimmy King, a one-time columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. One of his brothers is a playwright. Another is a singer-songwriter.

Randall has been content to cover the entertainment beat in one capacity or another since 1990.

His beat is film, and the job has placed him in the same room as diverse talents, from Martin Scorsese to Martin Short, from Julie Christie to Julia Styles. He has met three James Bonds (four if you count Woody Allen), and director Russ Meyer once told him: "I like your style."

He really likes his job.

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