Long before Doris Kearns Goodwin published her acclaimed Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, Steven Spielberg and his company DreamWorks Pictures acquired the movie rights. (I cannot find a reliable date as to when Spielberg acquired the rights; I find confirmations of this as early as 2001, but I seem to recall rumors about this film about ten years ago.) Since then, the project has idled, with only occasional flashes, such as when Goodwin's book was published in 2005.
Last year, Spielberg himself stoked new rumors about the film when he announced that he hoped to film it in 2009, the year of Lincoln's bicentennial. At that time, it was known that Liam Neeson had verbally agreed to star as Lincoln, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, who was Spielberg's screenwriter for Munich, was set to write the script.
The rumors erupted again this year, as the named players have been questioned about the potential film. Neeson told reporters last month that he was still attached to the film, but that he didn't know anything new. Just last week, Kushner reportedly suggested at a Lincoln forum at Harvard that a decision would be reached "next week," if it was to be filmed this year and released in December 2009 (just in time for awards season).
This has led to lots of anxious speculation this week, waiting for an announcement about the film. However, it looks like the problem is not the script -- reportedly finished -- or Spielberg's intentions -- evidently he still wants to film this movie next. The problem is money, part of the recent squabbling between DreamWorks and Paramount (which bought DreamWorks in 2006). Spielberg has recently cut some of his ties to Paramount (and created tension in his relationship with Universal Studios with a recent deal to distribute movies though Disney), but in the process, Paramount apparently ended up owning the rights to Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Per Slate's "The Big Money," Spielberg is now scrambling for cash to support his production company, fund the Lincoln movie, and convince Paramount to either sell the rights to him or allow him to direct.
As yet, there is no news about whether Spielberg is finding success or not. The folks at IMDB are pessimistic, suggesting that the film is slated to release in 2011. I am slightly more optimistic. If the script is done, and Neeson is attached, and (more importantly) Spielberg wants to do the movie, the problems with funding and rights will probably be worked out. While some people think that the movie has limited financial prospects -- one suggesting that it would be as unsuccessful as Amistad which only grossed $44 million -- I think that it has a better financial upside, especially if the Team of Rivals association is played up. And I think the movie itself has great potential, aside from Spielberg's instinct to be rather stuffy with historical elements sometimes, especially with Neeson as Lincoln. If the right movie executives agree, the movie will get made sooner rather than later.