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.

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