Were there any question about Steven Spielberg’s reverence for Abraham Lincoln, it should be put to rest by the fact that this ‘making of’ book lavishes over two-thirds of its pages on the film’s subject, his life and times. If this is hagiography, it’s not Spielberg it’s focused on — but in fact the book provides a relatively balanced view of the American President. Abraham Lincoln emerges from Steven Spielberg’s biopic as a complex, layered character: a mix of hero and clown, upright man and down-and-dirty politician, family man and man’s man. It’s an impressive distillation of the 16th President’s life, and David Rubel’s historical summary highlights just how much of the film is rooted in historical fact, and how subtly Tony Kushner’s script manages to convey a dense thicket of information. Rubel’s account is more wide-ranging, looking at how pre-Civil War tensions built between the States before sweeping through the War itself, and serves equally well as a primer for the film or a gap-filler after watching it. Photographs from the Civil War period, alongside quotations and extracts from first-hand accounts, bring the characters to life on the page. This doesn’t have the historical heft of, say, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals, Spielberg’s inspiration for the film. But as a lavishly photographed companion-piece, the historical sections go much further than the usual cinema guide in setting the film within its context.
The ‘making of’ sections, by comparison, are more of a love-in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Spielberg and his regular collaborators have nothing but praise for one another, their star or their subject, albeit eloquent and considered praise. Also unsurprising, but more disappointing, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t go on the record about his preparation and performance, and is more silent than Lincoln himself (Honest Abe is at least quoted). Still, there are fascinating titbits that reveal the filmmakers’ mania for authenticity: sound genius Ben Burtt tracked down Lincoln’s own mantelpiece clock to record its tick. That seriousness of purpose is reflected throughout this book, giving it the heft to match the film.
Reviewed by Helen O'Hara