How Was the Trailer, Mrs. Lincoln?

Presumably, we all know that speculating about upcoming movies with only their trailers to go by isn't a fit activity for a serious man. But that's how it works in a culture that now operates as a giant racetrack, everywhere from politics to the fall TV season; we all enjoy playing tout. Besides, I can't remember the last time I considered myself a serious man—it's all larks and pratfalls to me now, folks. That's how we grizzled types stay current.

At any rate, now that the first trailer for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is out, moviegoers can feel reasonably sure of at least a few things we only guessed before. In approximate order of descending "What? Good God, sir, are you trying to tell me Anderson Cooper is gay?" nonsurprise:

  1. Boy, is this sucker going to be mournful and majestic, with composer John Williams providing his usual musical oil spills when it comes to (re-) stating the obvious. This serves an admirably educational purpose, since any 11-year-old will henceforward be able to state with considerable confidence that the Civil War was a tragic event.
  2. Based on the slim evidence we have before us, that undeniably commanding actor Daniel Day-Lewis may be less than sublimely cast in the title role. We hear him giving a subdued rendition of the Gettysburg Address—peculiarly, since it's outside the movie's 1865 time frame—and then see him hectoring his cabinet about the 13th Amendment as if he's ordering a mob hit. The actor's fabled intensity strikes me as subtly but potentially fatally misplaced; humor and cagey passivity, two essentials of Lincoln's M.O., don't exactly clutter up Day-Lewis's filmography. And his makeup job, however pointlessly impressive, looks to be no great boon when it comes to expressiveness or intimacy.
  3. WTF is it with all these Brits, anyhow? Besides Day-Lewis, Jared Harris turns up as Ulysses S. Grant—someone even more irreducibly American than Lincoln himself, if that's possible. I've got nothing against Harris—Mad Men's late, lamented Lane Pryce, in case you've forgotten—but I don't much like the conventionally "distinguished" Masterpiece Theater vibe I'm getting here. (It wasn't just perversity that made me wish a homegrown eccentric like Nicolas Cage had gotten the chance to play Lincoln instead, but what do I know? My favorite screen Honest Abe in recent years was the hem-hawing one in this Geico commercial.) Though I can't help looking forward to Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens—the "Austin Stoneman" of Birth of a Nation—the one bit of casting that seems truly inspired is Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. That's because Haley is the only actor on the planet who could reasonably call Stephens the part he was born to play.
  4. The real tug-of-war here could be between Spielberg's sensibility and screenwriter Tony Kushner's. Kushner wrote Munich, the most atypically searching and ambivalent movie of Spielberg's career. But when Lincoln is the topic and Oscar season looms, it's a safe guess that innovative insights into the man won't be Unka Steven's main priority. Sue me for wishing Kushner had been tapped to write a Lincoln screenplay for, oh, David Cronenberg instead. 
  5. As misleading as trailers can be, it's not a good sign that Abe's marriage to narcissistic, batshit-crazy Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) has apparently been rethunk as a great stand-by-your-man love story. Still, Field did once star in Sybil, so you never know.

Overall, I could wish I were seeing more reasons to reconsider my initial glum sigh at the prospect of Spielberg tackling Lincoln. His worst failing as a filmmaker has always been his low—and at worst, outright craven—opinion of the big audience's intelligence; nobody who really trusted moviegoers to catch on to much unassisted would rely on a musical mugger like Williams to strong-arm our every reaction into being just what the director intended. The flabbiness of War Horse aside, Unka Steven has no living peers at manipulating audiences. But especially when he's dramatizing big historical subjects, his tendency is to manipulate audiences into unthinking piety and rote emotions. And my hunch is he'll get away with it again, because only the real Lincoln devotees—admirers of the supremely wily and opportunistic politician and/or the misplaced Edgar Allan Poe character, not the plaster saint—will have any idea how much interesting stuff he's leaving out.

Comments

What a dreadful article.

1. It seems the author can't tell the difference between two different Actors. The Gettysberg address as spoken in the trailer is not Lincoln speaking, it is David Oyelowo who plays a Soldier, most likely reciting Abe's words back to him.

2. The reason for hiring so many Brits most likely has everything to do with talent and gravitas rather than hiring actors simply because they are American - Zac Effron as Salmon P Chase? hahahaha

Sorry, but complaints based on information unavailable to the public are a bit much. We have every reason to assume Lincoln is speaking -- nothing in the trailer indicates otherwise -- and nobody knew what vocal timbre Day-Lewis would adopt to play the part. One line aside, he's ranting the only other time we hear him speak, so guessing the voice reciting the Gettysburg Address isn't his would be a real leap of intuition. As for the casting, your apparent belief that British actors enjoy a monopoly on the required talent and gravitas isn't one I share, and sorry about that.

Of course Tom Carson has something to say about the new Steven Spielberg film he hasn't even seen. (It took as long to read this silly article as to actually watch the trailer.) I've been reading Carson's anti-Spielberg nonsense since I was a kid. I remember him calling Saving Private Ryan nationalistic Nazi-style propaganda and complaining that the Jewish soldier was "strapping" while one of several WASP soldiers was a coward, when apparently it should have been the other way around. The whole piece was foaming at the mouth insanity, implicity and sometimes explicitly labeling what everyone else thought was the somber antithesis of Michael Bay-style filmmaking fascist and right-wing. (But a couple years later Carson defended violently homophobic rap.) So I'm really not surprised to see this same author viciously attacking a new Spielberg movie he has not seen. I'm pretty sure of two things, Tom: Tony Kushner would never write something that isn't complex, and a Steven Spielberg film probably has a marketing department at either Disney or DreamWorks that makes his trailers for him. Your career-long attacks on Spielberg are weirdly unfair (is Titanic not manipulative?) and so personal they're creepy. I can't wait for next week's Tom Carson article complaning that Robopocalypse is emotionally manipulative kinetic energy that overwhelms the senses but reveals nothing about the human condition.

Oh and Williams' scores for Spielberg rank among the best ever. Jaws, Raiders, and E.T. have model scores. I hated the repetitive musical theme in War Horse, but they these two have a history of incredible collaborations that can withstand a few late career mistakes. Besides, the SAME year saw Williams' understated score for The Adventures of Tintin.

Steven Spielberg is the best pop filmmaker alive; his best films are genius works of humane fantasy, and Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List (while more flawed than his perfectly crafted adventure movies) are two of the best historical fictions ever made. If you don't like Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich, that's fine but to constantly launch unfair attacks and act like the man who made that pretty impressive list of films is a shyster who just wants to shake down some money from us is SO unfair and stupid and weird.

I have never called Spielberg "a shyster who just wants to shake down some money from us." NEVER, even leaving aside your loaded use of the term "shyster." Jaws and Munich -- the opposite poles of his career -- are two movies I admire unreservedly, and I've always qualified my reservations about some of the others by acknowledging that the man really knows how to shoot and cut film. As for Williams, I can't stand him and think Spielberg's reliance on him is one of Unka Steven's artistic flaws. But I'm really interested in revisiting Empire of the Sun, which I bet looks pretty ambitious and great today.

Yes, it's a beautiful, mature work with what Spielberg called "unpretentious symbolism."

The t Rex attack on the kids in Jurassic park is bravura filmmaking: the blocking and cutting and tempo are all as impressive as the fx. Screenwriter David koepp is a hack but in this scene Spielberg directs like a champ and keeps the audience on the edge of its seat with NO MUSIC. Not one note. Many of the suspense scenes in duel are also sans music. Honestly, I think Spielberg too often thinks the audience is smarter than they really are, which is why Munich flopped big-time. Think of how much bank it would have made if it were an Israeli saving private Ryan. Maybe your peers at gq and esquire are smart movie watchers, but the rest of us live in a world where Adam sandler is a huge box office draw. Forgive me if I don't think Lincoln is going to insult anyone's intelligence in the same month the twilight sequel comes out. That's why I think you're unfair.

I don't know about "too often," but Munich was a big gamble and I hope Spielberg wasn't chastened out of ever trying something like that again from the mediocre box-office results. (You're quite right that he'd have done better if he'd turned it into the Israeli SPR.) I can't remember the exact quote, but I respected him for saying Hollywood had to step up to 9/11, which he did in one way in Munich and another in War of the Worlds (great first hour, second half mostly undone by dumb plot). And honest, if I'm often harsh on him, that's partly because I don't measure him against the latest installment of Twilight. I measure him against the greats, which he deserves.

This response was awesome. Thanks for starting a conversation about this.

Abraham Lincoln is a movie where the director has tried to perfectly blend together facts from history with fantasy fiction to dish out this latest fare. But somewhere down the line it seems that the proportion went a bit haywire and the plot became repetitive and to some extent boring.Nonetheless the action sequence and the fight between man and vampires has enthralled the audience.

Thanks
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I saw it and for me it is a really good trailer! I want to see more!

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