Despite the fact that his most recent film War Horse has yet to even be released, talk about Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Abraham Lincoln biopic Lincoln has already started to increase. And, in my mind, that makes sense. Lincoln stars Daniel Day-Lewis as one of the most iconic historical figures that has ever existed. War Horse stars…a horse.
In Monday’s edition of the Orlando Sentinel, they managed to get an interview with the legendary director, who spoke briefly on what his Lincoln pic would be about. According to Spielberg, “we’re basing it on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, ‘Team of Rivals,’ but we’re only focusing in on the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life.” That information helps add some context to another bit of Lincoln news that popped up today: Deadline Crawfordville’s report that Jackie Earle Haley has joined the cast in the role of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens.
We’re all used to seeing Haley play roles where he does things like brutally murder people or molest little children, so it’s easy to imagine that he’s been tapped to play Stephens because they’re portraying him as a contemptible racist in the film; but that might not end up being the case. Stephens is most famous for his Cornerstone Speech, in which he said that, “our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Wow, that’s about the most racist thing I’ve ever heard. But seeing as this film will be focusing on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, and this is a speech that was made in 1861, Haley will be playing a Stephens removed from those words by a few years.
Over the course of The Civil War, Stephens became known for a couple of things other than racism – most notably the fact that he became more and more outspoken against Confederate President Jefferson Davis as the war went on. He was against Davis’ policy of drafting people into military service, he was against Davis suspending habeas corpus and unlawfully holding prisoners, and he even supported some legislation meant to achieve peace with the North.
Will we be getting the usual Jackie Earle Haley role here, one in which Stephens is portrayed as a human rights-shirking monster, or will the film’s timeframe afford the actor the chance to play a more nuanced, three-dimensional character? I’d certainly like a chance to see what other tricks Haley has up his sleeve. Maybe somebody who has read “Team of Rivals” can shed some light on the issue for us.