His 1992 Tony Award-winning play Angels in America tackled AIDS at the height of its epidemic. In 2005, he co-wrote Steven Spielberg's Munich, which took heat for its portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians. The latest Kushner-Spielberg project, Lincoln, arrives in L.A. on Nov. 9, three days after the Presidential election.
The film chronicles the final months of Lincoln's life in 1865 at the end of America's Civil War. The 16th president was desperately trying to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. His principal challenge was getting a two-thirds majority vote in the divided House of Representatives.
"Is this a good connection?" Kushner asks via phone last week, on Halloween. He is stranded on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Luckily, he has power and dodged property damage. "It's a nightmare," he says. Kushner spent part of Tuesday driving downtown in his car to pick up friends in areas without electricity. His guests were treated to a hot shower and home-cooked meal.
The Village Halloween Parade has been canceled, for the first time since it streamed down Sixth Avenue 39 years ago. Kushner wasn't planning on going this year, though; he was supposed to be out of town helping the Obama campaign. Kushner is not quiet when it comes to his views about the President: He likes Barack very much.
"Watching the Obama presidency through the lens of Lincoln has been a transformative thing for me," he says. "I think Barack Obama is a great president. I won't say that he's as great as Lincoln. I don't know if there'll ever be a president as great as Abraham Lincoln. But I think Obama inherited a mess as formidable as the mess that FDR inherited when he came into Washington during the Great Depression. Progressive people have not been patient enough, and thoughtful enough, in our criticisms of him. I feel it's been a blessing to be thinking about Lincoln the whole time. Lincoln reminds you that great good can come from compromise, and always from politics."
Like politicians today, Lincoln was famously a storyteller. Everybody around him knew that he would often launch into a long, winding tale. "I feel that in a number of places it seemed clear to me that Lincoln told stories as a way of making a point without having to actually say something that he felt might be problematic politically for the president to say," Kushner says.
For instance, while at City Point, Va., near the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was talking to Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman and Admiral David D. Porter about what to do with the leaders of the Confederacy once they were captured. Someone asked whether they should be tried and executed, or allowed to escape. Lincoln spoke of a man he knew near Salem who didn't drink alcohol. The man would go to his friend's house and drink a glass of lemonade. And he would stand looking out the window while the friend poured gin in his lemonade. As long as he didn't see it happening, it was OK.
"This was Lincoln's way of saying as long as I don't know what happens to them, if they escape, that would be what I prefer," Kushner says. "He had political strategy behind some of his stories."
For the film, Kushner mainly adapted Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln but also researched other sources during his six years writing the screenplay, sifting through various historical theories.
For instance, Kushner does not agree with the theory that Lincoln was depressed. "A person who is struggling with massive depression would have had a hard time functioning like Lincoln did," he says. "Four years without a single vacation. It took an enormous cast iron psyche to be able to process everything that was happening and to stay functioning, which he absolutely did. He was President of a country of 30 million people during a time in which 750,000 died in a four-year period in a violent war. That he spent a certain amount of time feeling sorrow is unquestionably the case, but that's not depression."
The squabbling members of the House of Representatives portrayed in the film are not so different from our own congress. Writing this screenplay, Kushner was reminded that in a democracy, change is awkward and uneven, but great and important things can happen.
"What I'd like people to get out of the film, those guys yelling and screaming and calling each other names, at the end of the day, two-thirds of the majority of them abolished slavery in the United States," says Kushner. "So it's very important to me that while politicians and the political process is not pretty at all, it is a process that can produce extraordinary progress and even radical transformation."