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Faust and Kushner on “Lincoln” and pulling stories out of history

Artists have always been interested in reconstructing watershed historical events, from the ascension of Christ to the ascension of George W. Bush. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the latest contribution to this tradition, dramatizing the first four months of 1865 in the life of Abraham Lincoln, during which he pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives, ended the Civil War and died.

After a free showing of Lincoln on Nov. 29 at the Brattle Theater, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, author of the Civil War study This Republic of Suffering, talked with screenwriter Tony Kushner, who delivered the Harvard Tanner Lecture on historic fiction in 2008. They discussed the mythic 16th American president and the daunting process of transforming him onscreen into a living, breathing character.

Kushner described Lincoln as two distinct characters, depending on whom you read. “Many said he was a warm, approachable, and adorable person,” said Kushner. “People loved him. But others said he was the coldest man they ever knew. He was removed; he was like God playing chess with men.” Finding the balance between these impressions was one of Kushner’s main tasks in writing Lincoln. A true statesman makes both friends and enemies.

Another challenge of reanimating Lincoln that Kushner expressed was in writing words for such a legendary wordsmith. “There were all those words there before you, before you found your words,” Faust said. Kushner was frank about his initial reluctance to supplement the Lincoln corpus. “Putting words in Lincoln’s mouth is terrifying,” he said. Early in the writing process, he took inspiration from Thomas Mann, who faced a similar dilemma in representing Goethe, the infinitely quoted father of German literature, for his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann had the audacity to begin his book inside Goethe’s head. “Mann does the most terrifying thing first,” Kushner explained. “He shows Goethe thinking. It’s like he’s getting it out of the way. I started the writing process for Lincoln by imitating Mann.”

Of course, Honest Abe’s thoughts are never directly represented in the film. Nonetheless, the film portrays Lincoln with such intimacy and empathy that we emerge feeling that we’ve witnessed the man in full. Much of this effect is achieved in scenes where Lincoln is shown performing mundane or idle tasks: stirring a fire or playing with his feet out of boredom. “Spending time just watching Lincoln is more important than anything he says onscreen,” Kushner said, “That’s what gives you that sometimes uncanny sense that you’re actually spending time with Lincoln.” It is primarily this sense that separates the film from a traditional biopic: This isn’t Lincoln, the textbook, but Lincoln, the man.

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