Rather than simply telling the life story of our 16th President, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln instead tells the story of how the leader worked to make sure that slavery would be banned in post-Civil War America. But in order to get the votes he needed from those on the fence about the issue, he had three men – W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) – work to try and convince the opposing party that the 13th Amendment needed to be put into law. But in the discussion of how the three men went about their persuasion there is an ethical dilemma: how far can you push morality when the ends ultimately justify the means?
Last week, prior to Lincoln’s limited release, I had the pleasure of getting to sit down with Spader to discuss that very predicament. Check it out below!
I’ve been really looking forward to talking with you because I actually think you have one of the most fascinating parts in this film. Obviously Mr. Bilbo is working on the side of good, he’s helping the President of the United States pass an amendment that will put an end to slavery, but the way that he and his team go about getting the votes that they need isn’t exactly the most ethical of practices. So I’m curious, as an actor looking through the eyes of this character, where do you think ethics and morality lie in the shadow of the greater good and the ultimate end justify the means? And how do you think the real Mr. Bilbo felt about his work.
Well, at that job he was an amateur. And that, I think, allowed for a certain amount of bumbling. But I think that was a fine line that we walked in the film. There were references in earlier drafts to events that were even shadier.
There was never a reference or an implication in the film that money actually changed hands for the sake of a vote. From Bilbo you hear him speak of that as an expeditious way of handling business [laughs] but that’s as close as the film came to that implication. But there are suspicions that that might have taken place. And I think that there are also suspicions of other nefarious or more shady things might have happened. But this film was very careful in its vetting. I don’t think one can ever look at the ethics of the passage of the 13th Amendment. Thadeus Stevens speaks of it in the last scene [laughs]. But I don’t think anyone can look at those ethics as a separate issue at all from what it was in service of. I just don’t think anyone can. And I think that given the circumstances of the day and the context of the day, gosh… one of the most eloquent speeches in the film is about the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln’s speaking on the tenuous ground, the very shaky ground he was on – and exploitation of power…and it was the motivation to pass the 13th Amendment! Truly, because he being an attorney – they all were attorneys – they all knew that the Emancipation Proclamation…even during a war it was on very shaky ground. And very suspect, and absolutely would not stand up in court at the end of war. But everybody at that time, Lincoln first and foremost, was an amateur. They were all faced with decisions and calls and profound and brutal decisions and judgments that were sort of a greater ideology, but issues that they never imagined in their wildest dreams they would have been faced with.
The 13th Amendment had to pass, there’s no question about that, but is there a line that Mr. Bilbo and his team could have crossed where they would be stepping into unquestionable, beyond acceptable areas of ethics?
Well, Harry Truman had to decide whether he was going to drop a nuclear bomb on Japan and end World War II. There are always going to be certain times in any country’s history where people are going to have to make a decision – a leader of a country… those people are always going to be faced with a struggle of whether or not the ends justify the means. I think politicians today face that all the time. We just finished an election! I can’t imagine that both candidates didn’t struggle with “the ends justify the means.” I think that’s part of immense power. And I think most importantly it’s a struggle that anyone faces when they’re making decisions for others. And when they’re working in a position in service of others, the service of a nation – especially this nation, that has always from the beginning of its history accommodated a population as diverse in every way that this country has. Balancing the individual with the masses. And Lincoln faced it then, that was his moment that he faced that, and he also alluded to… I think also there’s no question that Lincoln has been diluted down through history in some way, almost by becoming as iconic as he is, in a way he’s become diluted. The script alludes to his stories, and he was very funny with his stories from the past when he was working as an attorney – to serve a greater good [laughs]. He was willing to test the boundaries of ethics.
Listen, I’ve played an attorney before, I’ve played a lawyer who tested the boundaries of ethics to serve what he perceived in terms of his own morality and his own ethics, what he perceived to be the greater good. And I think that’s fascinating, and this film speaks to that as well.