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How Tony Kushner made Lincoln talk

The movie’s vivid 19th-century dialogue is an achievement of its own

Imagine that you’re Steven Spielberg and you need a script for your new film: a meticulous re-creation of the final months in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Keep in mind that it’s a modern Hollywood blockbuster but is set a century and a half ago. It portrays real people with distinctive regional quirks, and revolves around perhaps the greatest orator in American history. Oh, and it’s two and a half hours of mostly talking. How would you ensure that the language of the film was just right?

What Spielberg did, after some false starts with other screenwriters, was to hire Tony Kushner, a playwright with a talent for channeling diverse voices and whose only previous movie work was on Spielberg’s “Munich.” Whatever its other cinematic virtues, “Lincoln” is undoubtedly a linguistic achievement, imbuing vintage 19th-century dialogue with contemporary ­vibrancy.

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