Abraham Lincoln continues to loom large in the American consciousness these days, due in no small measure to the efforts of Harold Holzer and Ken Burns.
Holzer, perhaps the pre-eminent Lincoln authority today, and Burns, the documentary filmmaker who made “The Civil War,” have spent much of their professional lives trying to illuminate the life and legacy of our nation’s 16th president. Next week, however, they, like Lincoln fans everywhere, will be watching Hollywood’s fresh take on the Great Emancipator when Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, hits theaters around the country.
Both Holzer and Burns have their favorite “movie Lincoln,” and in their case that happens to be the same person: Sam Waterston. That comes as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Holzer and Burns, but both men are relishing the prospect of watching someone else’s interpretation of Lincoln. And both are expecting they won’t be disappointed in what Spielberg, a two-time Oscar winner for Best Director, and Day-Lewis, a two-time Oscar recipient for Best Actor, bring to the screen.
“The last great director who took on Lincoln was John Ford, and before that it was D.W. Griffith, who was not in his prime,” said Holzer.
“Now we have a great director from the late 20th and 21st century who has shown a number of times that he can bring both accuracy and excitement to a historical subject. He’s also working with Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote the most popular Lincoln book of the past 10 years, so it seems like a match made in heaven.”
Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” from 2005 focused on Lincoln and the men he chose for his Cabinet, including New York’s William Seward. Tony Kushner, who wrote both the stage and movie version of “Angels in America,” wrote the screenplay for “Lincoln,” which deals mostly with the last few months of the president’s life.
As for Day-Lewis, who replaced Spielberg’s original choice — Liam Neeson — to play Lincoln, Holzer thinks people won’t be disappointed.
“He famously wraps himself into his roles and becomes them,” Holzer said of Day-Lewis, who earned his two Oscars for “My Left Foot” in 1989 and “There Will Be Blood” in 2007. “If you look at his range, he can play someone with cerebral palsy, someone who’s a boxer, to someone who is an effete snob. His range is unbelievable.”
However, in order to surpass Waterston as Holzer’s favorite Lincoln, Day-Lewis will have to come up with an Oscar-worthy performance. Nominated for seven Emmys as well as a Tony and an Oscar, Waterston played Lincoln originally in the 1988 TV miniseries of the same name opposite Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln.
He became the voice of Lincoln in Burns’ 1990 documentary on the Civil War and then played the 16th president on Broadway in a 1994 revival of Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” for which he earned his Tony nomination. He has worked with Holzer on Lincoln projects in the past.
In February of 2009, to help commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, he delivered in its entirety Lincoln’s 1860 speech at Cooper Union in New York City. Holzer, in his role as New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, introduced Waterston as Lincoln. The pair also worked on Holzer’s “Lincoln Seen and Heard,” a series of stage presentations in which Holzer would set up some of Lincoln’s favorite speeches with Waterston then doing the reading.
Top 10 Screen Lincolns
According to Gazette features and history writer Bill Buell:
1. Sam Waterston — Who am I to argue with Harold Holzer and Ken Burns.
2. Raymond Massey — While the film was not always historically accurate, Lincoln fans love his 1940 Oscar-nominated performance in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.”
3. Hal Holbrook — He earned an Emmy nomination for “Mark Twain Tonight!” in 1967 and then won an Emmy for “Lincoln” in the 1974-75 television miniseries. He also played “Honest Abe” in the 1982 miniseries “North and South.”
4. Henry Fonda — He didn’t want the role, but director John Ford talked Fonda into it and the result was a rather entertaining film that earned both actor and director good reviews.
5. David Selby — The veteran character appeared on stage at Ford’s Theater with President Barack Obama to help commemorate Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009 and also wrote a novel, “Lincoln’s Better Angels.” He’s on this list because of his memorable 1998 portrayal of Lincoln in the TV show “Touched by an Angel.” The episode was named “Beautiful Dreamer.”
6. Lee Bergere — Another well-known character actor who turned in a fine portrayal of Lincoln. “Star Trek” fans will never forget his “Help me, Kirk” from the 1969 episode “The Savage Curtain.”
7. Walter Huston — He might deserve a higher spot, but D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln” from 1930, the director’s very first “talkie,” is rather dated and keeps Huston in the bottom half of the top 10.
8. Gregory Peck — OK, he didn’t sound like Lincoln, but he certainly was able to demonstrate Lincoln’s grace and dignity in the 1982 miniseries “The Blue and the Gray.”
9. Jason Robards — He was better as U.S. Grant and FDR, but in “The Perfect Tribute,” a 1991 TV movie with Lucas Haas, Robards gave a fine performance as Lincoln getting ready to deliver the Gettysburg Address.
10. Royal Dano — Was there ever a better character actor? Dano did Lincoln five times live on the television series “Omnibus” during the 1952-53 season and also played a character who thought he was Lincoln in a 1961 episode of “The Rifleman.”
“He [Waterston] read the whole Cooper Union speech and it was a magnificent night,” said Holzer. “Sam has done a lot of work to get at Lincoln. He’s studied the accent, he went to the Library of Congress and borrowed tapes made by people from that region [the Midwest] in the early 20th century. He really becomes transformed. I thought he was great as Lincoln in the miniseries, and when we were thinking about doing ‘Lincoln Seen and Heard’ at Ford’s Theatre, I said ‘I gotta work with him.’ ”
Like Holzer, Burns said Waterston was unquestionably the guy he wanted reading Lincoln’s voice in “The Civil War.”
“I’m looking forward to the movie, and I’m very excited to see Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, but my favorite Lincoln is Sam Waterston,” said Burns.
“I saw the miniseries on TV, and that convinced me to pull him in for the voice of Lincoln for our film. He delivered us Lincoln to the point where people would come up to me after watching the film and tell me that they felt they were there at Gettysburg with Lincoln, or the White House. That’s a historian’s delight.”
For many Americans today, the subject of Lincoln in film conjures up memories of Raymond Massey and Henry Fonda. In 1940, Massey played Lincoln in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” a year after he portrayed him on Broadway in Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Fonda, meanwhile, had his turn in 1939 in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” directed by Ford.
“Massey’s performance is great, and he did it on the stage and screen, but while I think the movie was great, it is a bit dated,” said Burns. “There’s kind of a God-like quality we ascribe to Lincoln and we do so at our detriment. He was not a god, and when you have that kind of lugubrious thing going on in the film, I think it suffers a little bit.
“I enjoyed the Henry Fonda version, but in that movie you have this sense that you’re looking at the early life of Jesus. The movie and the performance inevitably suffers from that great sense of importance. That’s why its important to give the character some humanity and even reveal his flaws and vulnerability. That’s what makes Sam’s work so stunning.”
Not all historians and Lincoln fans are as optimistic about what Spielberg’s final work will look like. Paul Finkelman, the President William McKinley distinguished professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School, says he hasn’t been to a movie in five years and is in no great hurry to see “Lincoln.”
“I think the great value of pop culture is to get people interested in the past and help them understand it,” said Finkelman, who has lectured extensively on Lincoln and the Dred Scott decision and also recently published a book on the 13th U.S. president, Millard Fillmore.
“So, while I think that is wonderful, most movies that are historical tend to be corrupted by the perception that the marketplace requires certain things be fictionalized to make them presumably more interesting. I think Spielberg is definitely guilty of that in some of his other movies.”
In Spielberg’s “Amistad,” his 1997 movie about a mutiny on a slave ship, he played fast and loose with the facts, according to Finkelman.
“He completely fictionalized certain aspects of that story that simply didn’t happen,” said Finkelman. “The movies are great, and earlier in my life I went to them a lot. But I think they’re ultimately about entertainment, and there will always be that tension between entertainment and actual scholarship. If somebody wants to go see ‘Lincoln,’ I would tell them, ‘Great, go see it.’ But then I would tell them to go read a book about him or read his speeches. He wrote them all himself, and that is stunning. He is arguably the greatest craftsman of the English language to ever serve as president.”
Sheila Curran Bernard, assistant professor and acting director of the documentary studies program at the University at Albany, has a more optimistic outlook for Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
“The screenplay is written by the brilliant dramatist Tony Kushner, based in part on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals,’ ” said Bernard, who has immersed herself into the documentary film world and played a huge role in the PBS project “Slavery by Another Name,” serving as the writer. “The film is directed by Stephen Spielberg, whose film adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s ‘Schindler’s List’ had such power, so I’m very much looking forward to ‘Lincoln,’ and I have high expectations for it.”
However, producing a film about an iconic character like Lincoln, she says, does have its problems.
“The challenge the creators of ‘Lincoln’ faced — which is true of all historical film storytelling, whether documentary or drama — is to engage audiences in the stories of real people, rather than icons,” she said.
“At some point very early on in the film, you want audiences to forget that they’re watching the phenomenal actor Daniel Day-Lewis portraying iconic President Abraham Lincoln; you want them instead to become engrossed in the story of a man facing almost insurmountable challenges, and you want them to go with that man through this remarkable journey, setting aside — at least until the film reaches its resolution — that they already know how it ends.”
Siena College history professor Bruce Eelman has high hopes for “Lincoln” and says Spielberg’s work on previous historical epics such “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” is commendable. He’ll be watching the movie and so will many of his students.
“While there will no doubt be poetic license, I hope there will be a real effort to look at the difficulties facing Lincoln and the complexity of the man,” said Eelman.
“For today’s college students, cinema can be an effective teaching tool. For example, I have my students this semester reading a short academic book on Lincoln, and they will then be required to view the movie and write a paper comparing the academic overview with the portrayal of Lincoln in the movie. This can be instructive on how cinema shapes the popular understanding of the past as much, if not more, than scholarly books do.”
Eelman says he really doesn’t have a favorite screen Lincoln, but he hopes that changes after watching Spielberg’s movie and Day-Lewis’ performance.
“For generations, Americans thought of either Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey, and both gave very heroic, uncomplicated portraits of Lincoln,” said Eelman. “What makes history so interesting are the contradictions and complications within pivotal figures. Spielberg has been acknowledged by historians for his honest efforts at representing the past in all its complexities. I’m actually looking forward to the release of the movie.”