"It's never been lost on me that the greatest crisis that ever happened in this country was slavery, secession and the Civil War, and all of the reconstruction, which continues even to this day," he said. "It was the biggest trauma this country has ever experienced in its relatively short existence. And yet I've always been surprised that movies haven't really focused on a Lincoln portrait."
Henry Fonda starred in "Young Mr. Lincoln" in the 1930s, but in the years since then, Lincoln has been relegated to cameo roles, he said.
"That's what surprised me," Spielberg said, "and that's what I felt had been missing."
The Lincoln that Spielberg creates with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role is a personable Lincoln who tells jokes and sometimes even annoys people with folksy stories. He gets down on the floor with son Tad and tries to humor his demanding and emotionally fragile wife, Mary.
"It's much more detailed, and it's much more personal," Spielberg said. "You get to spend time with Lincoln as a human being, not just as a statue or a $5 bill tucked away in your pocket. The idea was to flesh him out. I couldn't think of anybody that would do a better job in rediscovering him for all of us than Daniel Day-Lewis. ...
"I hope this turns a statue or monument on Mount Rushmore into a deeply thoughtful, compassionate, flawed but very politically proactive human being."
Spielberg's own view of the 16th president was colored by the 7,000 books written about Lincoln, not that he or anyone else has read them all, he said. "I felt both intimidated but also hungry at the opportunity to make some discoveries. A person as great as Lincoln deserves to be re-examined from time to time."
Among those discoveries was Lincoln's depth of moral character, Spielberg said. "Even though (Lincoln) didn't have direct first-hand experience with slavery, he abhorred the idea of it." Running for president as an abolitionist would have made him unelectable because abolishing slavery was too radical in 1860, but "he had the heart of one."
Then Lincoln waited until the right moment to ensure slavery would end.
"He never rushed into anything, but suddenly in 1865, in the last four months of his life, for the first time he rushed into trying to get the amendment to abolish slavery through the House of Representatives and on to the different states for ratification," Spielberg said. "Everybody thought he was out of his mind.
"He knew there would be very little interest in abolishing slavery with the war behind the country. With the war ahead of the country, he knew that abolishing slavery could be interpreted as a military necessity because it would demoralize what was left of the Southern resistance. ...
"He really didn't believe it would be passed for decades if the war ended first." Slaves who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation through the president's war powers might have been returned to their owners.
"That's sort of the crux of the argument and the crux of the dilemma Lincoln faces in our movie, 'Lincoln.'"
Mary Todd Lincoln also becomes more than a caricature through Sally Field's portrayal of her, though that role necessarily stays in the background.
"It's a very compelling story all by itself," Spielberg said.
"She was Lincoln's ambition. If Lincoln lacked some ambition, Mary made up for it. We always say Mary had a chance to marry Stephen Douglas or Abraham Lincoln and married the man she thought would be most likely to succeed as president of the United States.
"I think she loved him deeply and understood him very well. As much as she complicated his life with her obsessive mourning of Willie (who died in 1862 at age 11 of typhoid), she at the same time continued to be a very strong adviser in his life and kept the fire of ambition burning in him. I think she was a little bit of his political engine. She pushed him. She always pushed him."
Spielberg said he doesn't think of "Lincoln" as a Civil War movie. A scene of a symbolic burning city might bring "Gone with the Wind" to mind, but he doesn't see many parallels.
"'Gone with the Wind' is a spectacle and a melodrama, albeit a great, great film, especially a great film in its day.
"I don't compare 'Lincoln' to any political film because it's more of a study of a man at a critical crossroads in American history. It's less a spectacle and it's one of the least melodramatic films I've ever been involved with."
Nor does he compare "Lincoln" with other films in a career that's ranged from "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" to "Schindler's List."
"I don't think I've made anything like this before," he said. "I've never made anything with such beautiful language and such long speeches and such an amazing ensemble cast.
"It's really unique in my experience, and I've been around for a while."
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