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Portrait of a great man
Portrait of a great man

When Steven Spielberg was about five years old his family took him to Washington to visit the Lincoln Memorial, a vast Greek Doric-style temple which houses Daniel Chester French's famed statue of Abraham Lincoln, the man who guided America through its greatest crisis.

Spielberg says that he can vividly remember being frightened by the great marble carving, which depicts Lincoln as a stern, god-like figure looking down on the nation he did so much to forge when it was threatened by dissolution during the Civil War and the struggle over slavery.

"I was terrified because I looked up and it was a huge giant sitting on this big, huge chair. I was so afraid I couldn't look at his face," Spielberg told the American press late last year.

"I just looked at his hands and begged my uncle to get me out of there. Then as I got closer and closer I became completely captivated by the visage. I'll never forget that moment and it left me wondering about the man sitting high above me on that chair."

Indeed, the 66-year-old director continued to move closer and closer to his hero over the decades, studying everything he could about America's 16th and greatest president, so much so that by the time he came to make his own Lincoln biopic the historians he used as consultants considered him a fellow expert.

That closeness to Lincoln also meant that Spielberg has made a most un-Spielbergian movie about the self-educated frontiersman and country lawyer who led the fight to preserve the Union and bring an end to slavery.

There are none of the epic battle scenes for which Spielberg has become celebrated (he reinvented the war movie with the shattering opening of Saving Private Ryan); nor are there any of the soaring speeches and great man moments the director of Schindler's List could have milked for every last drop (the Gettysburg Address is actually rattled off by a Union soldier in the film's amusing opening).

Rather, Spielberg has lifted Lincoln off that great stone seat and returned him to the people he served so well, showing him to be a warm, funny man and wily politician who won over the opposition to his noble cause through a mix of charm, self-deprecating humour, storytelling and dirty jokes.

The result is one of the best films of Spielberg's extraordinary career, a gripping thriller that brings to vivid life one of the key moments of world history - the touch-and-go battle to end slavery - that Hollywood's master of spectacle has recounted without leaning on eye-popping action scenes, melodrama, sentiment or tub-thumping, just a precise dramatisation of the political process anchored by Daniel Day-Lewis' staggering full-immersion performance. It thoroughly deserves every one of its 12 Oscar nominations.

"Lincoln guided our country through its worst moments and allowed the ideals of American democracy to survive and assured the end of slavery," says Spielberg, whose previous foray into early American history was the ill-fated slave-uprising drama Amistad.

"But I also wanted to make a film that would show how multifaceted Lincoln was. He was a statesman, a military leader, but also a father, a husband and a man who was always, continuously looking deep inside himself.

"I wanted to tell a story about Lincoln that would avoid the mistakes of both cynicism and hero worship and be true to the vastness of who he was and the intimacy of his life and the softer angles of his nature."

Spielberg's passion for Lincoln is so great that in 1999 he bought the rights to the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, as its author, the esteemed American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, was just getting started on the mammoth tome that would be published in 2005 to great acclaim.

Goodwin's book is a detailed chronicle of the unlikely alliance that Lincoln forged with his political opponents, the trio of Republican party rivals for the 1860 presidential nomination who initially thought of him as an unqualified upstart.

The notion of a politician turning bitter rivals into supporters and facilitators struck Spielberg as the ideal way to present the spirit of Lincoln. It is also a story that spoke to the present moment, in which the two houses of American government routinely grind to a halt amid bitter fighting between Democrats and Republicans.

To distill Goodwin's 950-page bestseller into a manageable screenplay Spielberg hired screenwriter Tony Kushner, the celebrated playwright (Angels in America) who had worked for the filmmaker on Munich, his 2006 thriller about the Israeli agents who tracked the terrorists responsible for killing 11 Jewish athletes (a team of rivals of a different kind).

Kushner's first attempt at a workable screenplay was a wonderful but completely unworkable 500-page brick of a manuscript. "It was one of the most brilliant things I had ever read but it was sprawling, epic and completely unworkable as a motion picture," recalls Spielberg.

What entranced Spielberg the most was a 70-page stretch that Kushner had done on the fight to pass the 13th Amendment that brought an end to slavery, a remarkable race against the clock in which Lincoln had to marshal a dizzying series of oppositional factions at the same time as keep the war going while offering the hand of peace to the Confederates (Lincoln believed that the end of the Civil War would not necessarily end slavery).

Kushner says that the decision to focus on just one month in the life of the man Tolstoy believed to be the giant of the 19th century was a daring decision as it was telling a story that few people knew. However, he believes the achievement of bringing slavery to an end in the face of so much opposition defines this greatest of Americans and speaks most loudly to our own time.

"We both felt it was incredibly timely because in this day and age when so many people have lost faith in the idea of governance, it's a story that shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system," Kushner says.

"That month was also a lens through which you could see Lincoln with real clarity. It had all the ingredients that characterise him - his family life, his emotional life and his political genius.

"And it had the suspense of a real crisis. He faced a central dilemma: could he accomplish the end of human slavery while holding the Union together, and could he do it before the Confederacy surrendered?"

One of the most surprising aspects of Spielberg and Kushner's depiction of Lincoln is how humorous he is. Lincoln is one of history's most famous melancholics, so much so that certain historians believe that he suffered depression (they cite a contemporary of Lincoln who said he had "the saddest eyes of any human I have ever seen").

Goodwin stands in opposition to the Lincoln-as-depressive school, arguing that humour was an essential part of his temperament. She also praises Spielberg for doing such a great job of capturing that sense of humour.

"Lincoln could be sitting in a room and he would look so sad. But then he would start to tell a story and suddenly he would come to life and he would get funnier and funnier, and his eyes would twinkle, and his voice would take on whatever the story he was telling. That's how I always want to think of him: in motion, telling stories."

'I wanted to. . . show how multifaceted Lincoln was . . . statesman, military leader, father, a husband and a man looking deep inside himself.'