Yesterday, after months of speculation the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s latest film Lincoln was released. After watching (and re-watching) the trailer I thought I would share some of my thoughts about the trailer and what I think might be in store for viewers when the movie premiers in theaters on November 16, 2012.
The trailer opens with Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis, reciting from the Gettysburg Address. “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” Lincoln intones as images of combat flash across the screen. The film is based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s mammoth book Team of Rivals, and Spielberg has wisely chosen to take only a portion of the book as the basis for his movie. Instead of focusing on Lincoln’s role as a wartime president, Spielberg is focused on the last months of Lincoln’s life (and the Civil War), highlighting the president’s role as the Great Emancipator. This is made clear to the audience with the next scene, as Lincoln concludes, “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” as the President is shown interacting with an African American solider.
Folks, this is not your grandfather’s Lincoln movie. Instead of a folksy, “aw shucks,” type of Lincoln that has come down to us in such films as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Rather we are going to see a fiery and determined Abraham Lincoln who is willing to do anything—including insuring the emancipation of Southern slaves—to bring the Civil War to a close. While the movie is devoted to showing Abraham Lincoln as an emancipator, Spielberg willingly display’s Lincolns flaws, beginning with Lincoln’s attempt to negotiate peace with the Confederacy while at the same time supporting the fledgling 13th Amendment. At the Hampton Roads peace conference in February 1865, Lincoln in a desperate attempt to end the war offered the South a gradual, voluntary emancipation. The trailer shows what many historians have viewed as a contradiction (even hypocrisy) in Lincoln’s dealing with the abolition of slaves. Instead, I believe that the trailer is trying to show that while Lincoln was determined to end the war, underscored by images of a burning Southern city, he was not going to sacrifice the abolition of slavery.
The trailer then moves into the heart of the movie as the viewer sees clips of the divisive and racially charged battles over the 13th Amendment that occurred in the Senate with a glimpse of Mary Lincoln (Sally Fields) and Elizabeth Keckly (Gloria Reuben) watching from the spectators gallery. The debate in the Senate is compared with the debate raging within Lincoln’s cabinet with one of the Secretaries declaring, “Leave the Constitution alone!” To this declaration, Lincoln lashes out at his cabinet declaring that after so much bloodshed the time has now come to make the losses stand for something. In a scene made to show that Lincoln was very much in control of his “Team of Rivals.” “We’re stepped out on the world’s stage now. The fate of human dignity is in our hands. Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment! Now! Now! Now!” an impassioned Lincoln declares, pointing at his cabinet. We see a Lincoln who is committed to his principles as he laid out in the Gettysburg Address. The war may have begun as a debate over Union, but will end as war over emancipation with Lincoln taking the lead to insure the passage of the 13th Amendment. The final minute of the trailer reinforces that the film is going to focus on Lincoln as emancipator and as the healer of the nation. “No one’s ever been loved so much by the people, don’t waste that power,” Mary Lincoln is shown begging her husband. The trailer concludes with the question about what made Lincoln great. Was he born great or was he made great by his actions? “Can we chose to be born or are we fitted to the times which we are born into?” Lincoln asks a Union officer. “Well, I don’t know about myself, you maybe,” is the reply.
In conclusion a number of things struck me about the trailer. First, the Abraham Lincoln that is being portrayed is a completely different Lincoln than has been seen in the past. While past films have focused on the folksy, joke loving Lincoln, Spielberg’s film shows a skilled and passionate politician committed to fulfilling the promise of the Civil War as laid out in the Gettysburg Address as underscored by the trailers opening vignette. This is the Lincoln that so many Americans have come to revere and honor to the present day. While the film shows Lincoln’s failings, it uses his shortcomings to show the dramatic personal transformation that occurred that made Lincoln the Great Emancipator. That is the Lincoln that I love—a flawed person who allowed himself to move past the prejudices of his era and in the process made the United States what it is. The second thing that stood out to me is Sally Field’s performance of Mary Lincoln. Originally, I was dismayed about the casting of Sally Field’s as Mary Lincoln because I believed that the actress was too old to play a character that was only in her early forties during the Civil War. For months my friends and family have heard my complaints that there was “no Boniva in the Lincoln’s White House,” but I have to admit that I was wrong. Sally Field’s appearance as Mary Lincoln is striking and the clip of Mary offering advice to her husband leaves hope that Spielberg will present a well rounded view of the complex first lady. Mary Lincoln was more than just the crazy “hell-cat” that has been portrayed in popular culture. Yes, she had her faults, namely her free-spending habits and her jealously. But she was also a devoted and loving wife and mother who loved her family with all of her being. Mary Lincoln served as one of her husband’s chief political advisors before the Civil War and continued to serve in that capacity (with mixed results) during Lincoln’s presidency and opened the White House to political outsiders (African Americans and Spiritualists) who interacted with her husband.
The trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows promise. I believe we are going to see a new Abraham Lincoln and in the process be forced to challenge our past perceptions of the 16th president. Only time will tell if my initial observations are accurate, but I am hopeful that movie goers are going to see in November a smart and insightful film about Lincoln that will inspire others to read more about this remarkably period in our nation’s history.