By Jeff Labrecque
Updated September 14, 2012 at 06:21 AM EDT


  • Movie

At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that acting opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln was “uncanny.” He said, “I had absolutely no problem fully believing that I was standing across from and speaking to Abraham Lincoln.”

After seeing the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s long-in-the-works historical drama about the last four months of the president’s life, I have an inkling how Gordon-Levitt must have felt. There are no audio recordings of Lincoln’s voice, but when Day-Lewis concludes at the end, “…shall we stop this bleeding,” who doesn’t doubt that his is the voice of the Great Emancipator himself. It just feels and sounds… right.

Seeing Abraham Lincoln living and breathing on the screen is thrilling, especially since Hollywood hasn’t really given the 16th president his due since Henry Fonda played him in 1939. (Sorry Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.) Day-Lewis instills a sadness and grace that remind us of the incredible weight on his shoulders. As Spielberg said in the Google+ Hangout video that followed the online trailer premiere last night, “We treat him as a man, not a monument.”

It’s difficult to tell exactly where the movie picks up, but it’s understood that Lincoln has been re-elected, and that city on fire just might be one of the Southern cities in General Sherman’s path on his March to the Sea, which helped break the back of the Confederacy in December 1864. Don’t expect too many such action sequences, though; Spielberg said battlefield scenes take a back seat to Lincoln’s political struggles to end the war and pass the 13th amendment to guarantee the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. When we first meet Lincoln, the Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address have already been written and delivered. His place in history is already assured. Yet the war rages on.

It’s worth noting that even before Lincoln entered the White House, he was haunted by tragedy. His mother died when he was nine, his older sister died giving birth in her early 20s, his first sweetheart left him heartbroken when she died at age 22, and his second son Eddie fell victim to tuberculosis at age 3. He and his wife would lose a second son during their first term in Washington when 11-year-old Willie contracted typhoid. So when we’re introduced to Lincoln as he wanders a dark White House at night, he’s not only a president who’s shouldering the burden of a brutal civil war, but a father coping with his own personal loss.

A soldier (Daniel Oyelowo) recites the Gettysburg Address to his Commander in Chief, perhaps near Petersburg, Va., where Lincoln visited troops laying siege in early 1865. African Americans were organized in segregated units after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, not only adding needed manpower to the Union effort but formally redefining what the North was fighting for. The scene conjures up memories of both Glory and Spielberg’s own Amistad, and John Williams’ score has echoes of Saving Private Ryan, the moments after Omaha Beach was finally taken.

As Spielberg said on Thursday, his movie examines Lincoln’s dual priorities to end the war and pass the 13th amendment, which failed to pass in the House in 1864. The trailer quickly illustrates how these two directives were frequently at odds with each other. Hal Holbrook plays Francis Preston Blair, a member of the Cabinet with Southern ties urging Lincoln to seek peace. Blair had good relations with Confederate president Jefferson Davis and attempted to mediate a cease fire, if not a lasting peace.

On the other side of the argument was Secretary of State William Seward, played by David Strathairn, who believed compromise with the South would derail emancipation. “You can not have both,” he advises the conflicted president. Seward had been Lincoln’s greatest Republican rival for president in 1860, but he served his former adversary honorably. When Lincoln was assassinated, Seward was also targeted as part of John Wilkes Booth’s plot and barely survived multiple stab wounds.

New York Democratic congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) seemingly opposed Lincoln’s dual efforts at every opportunity. As mayor of New York, he had suggested his own state’s secession in order to maintain trade relations with all warring parties. When he went to Congress in 1863, he was eager for reconciliation with the South, and as this scene illustrates, he was hardly enlightened when it came to the 13th amendment and black equality.

Though Frederick Douglass complained that Lincoln didn’t move fast enough on the issue of abolition, and at one point, the president himself had doubts that blacks and white could co-exist after emancipation, he never doubted that slavery was wrong. “I am naturally anti-slavery,” he wrote in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” As he cradles this for-sale photo of two slave children, we hear Lincoln’s voice for the first time as he answers those who would sacrifice freedom for peace: “We have stepped out upon the world stage now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands…”

“… blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment! Now! Now! Now!”

Enter Tommy Lee Jones, as radical Pennsylvania abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. (It’s the equivalent of the Anthony Hopkins role from Amistad, no?) Extremely powerful and famously inflexible, Stevens wanted immediate emancipation and lived in constant horror that Lincoln would betray the slaves to make peace. He looked forward to the opportunity to punish the South severely, and when Lincoln died, he eventually got his way during Reconstruction.

In one scene, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) reminds her husband how beloved he is, and Lincoln was truly a likable fellow, as comfortable with enlisted men and farmers as he was with generals and D.C. insiders. Years of working the Illinois law circuit as a young man cultivated his storytelling skills and his homespun sense of humor charmed even the most skeptical acquaintances.

Lincoln’s youngest son Tad barely survived a bout of the typhoid that killed his older brother Willie in 1862, and from then on, the fragile child was adored and indulged. He had complete run of the White House, as depicted in the scene where he’s being raced through the halls on a cart, and he was a constant salve for his father’s sagging spirits.

Ladies and gentleman, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know what else to say. Certainly, hair and make-up deserve some credit, but it’s more than that, isn’t it? There’s almost a knowing fatality in his gaze, a resigned acceptance of what needs to be endured and what is to come. The only question is which clip the Academy is going to choose.

In March 1865, with victory virtually assured, Lincoln is inaugurated again. His famous speech hints at his pragmatic post-war plans: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” Somewhere in the crowd is actor John Wilkes Booth, who is not comforted by Lincoln’s words. It’s unclear if Spielberg has cast an actor to play the theatrical assassin, or if the film concludes before that conspiracy — perhaps the screen fades to black just as the curtain goes up at the Ford Theater.

Jared Harris (Mad Men) stars as General Ulysses S. Grant, who finally made productive use of the Union’s resource advantages and methodically ground up Robert E. Lee’s exhausted Southern armies. Behind him is his flagship, the River Queen, where Lincoln visited in early 1865 to negotiate with Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), who pressures the president with the “hundreds of thousands have died during your administration” line.

Spielberg seemed emphatic that his movie is as much about a father and husband as it is about a president. In the final moments of the trailer, Lincoln’s words about freeing the “unborn millions to come” reverberate over images of devastated battlefields strewn with corpses, African-Americans filling the gallery of Congress, and black soldiers saluting, but it’s this image of a father and his son that makes the strongest impression.

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