LINCOLN TRAILER: What you See is What you Get

After reading A.O. Scott‘s review in the NYTimes, I decided to see Lincoln, which I did the other night. I love Tony Kushner’s writing; I admire Spielberg’s choices and acknowledge his films as “cultural landmarks” regardless of whether I like them. Then there are the inestimable Daniel Day Lewis and my sentimental favorite, Sally Field, in a role that seemed likely to elicit some of her prodigious talent.

Scott called it one of the best American political movies ever made, which, though I’m not qualified to judge the claim, I find to be a generically useful categorization. This very serious, well-intentioned- even educational– film concerns itself with two related political issues confronting President Lincoln: the 13th amendment outlawing slavery and concluding Civil War hostilities expeditiously. Those subjects and their resolution by the deployment of power–significantly via talk, negotiation, exchange and scheme– are the insistent focus of the action. All other matters, for Lincoln and his circle, are subordinate.

While I might complain about the hagiography (saint-making) and the historical conceit that the question of slavery was Lincoln’s exclusive focus, I’m not reviewing the film but rather preparing the ground for my post about the trailer, a trailer that is both faithful to the material and indicative of the viewing experience to be had in the theater.

At 2:15, the official trailer emphasizes public and private talk, whether speeches in the house of representatives, debates in the cabinet, domestic exchanges or fireside negotiations. The conflict whose resolution fuels the action of the script is introduced in a conversation between Lincoln and Preston Blair, a Republican eminence, before being starkly defined by Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward (David Strathairn), who explains that he can either pass the 13th Amendment or quickly negotiate a peace deal with representatives of the Confederacy, not both.

By the third act, Lincoln’s words imply that achieving both is possible, with the equivocal “shall we stop this bleeding,” applying equally to the armed conflict and to the institution of slavery. It’s a forgivable slight of hand, of a piece with the saintly portrayal of Lincoln, whose humility and empathy co-exist with a mastery of retail politics and dictatorial self-assertion. Field, as Mary Lincoln, delivers a speech that is similarly equivocal, when she says: “no one’s ever been loved so much by the people, don’t waste that power.” Those who’ve seen the movie understand that she’s urging him not to pursue the 13th Amendment, while those watching the trailer can justifiably believe she is egging him on along the path of virtue.

The trailer can be excused this finesse, given that it takes a two hour film to explain how Lincoln delays the peace process in order to attain his objective in the 13th Amendment. He does ultimately get both, with the Amendment obtained before peace, specifically, Surrender, which is only achieved through additional weeks of grinding trench warfare. It was a terrible choice to have had to make, although from our perspective, it was the right one.

There are no copy cards in the trailer; nor is there a voice over, apart from the voice of Lincoln intoning the words of justly public addresses. There is a card for Spielberg, but no mention of his multiple Academy Awards, since his name is enough. Tommy Lee Jones, Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field are all introduced with their Academy laurels.

Lastly, the credit block takes 4 separate pages, a testament to the “dream team” of production talent who combined on this project. John Williams the composer; Tony Kushner, screenwriter; Kathleen Kennedy the producer; Janusz Kaminsky, Cinematography; Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the source material, “Band of Rivals.” This is provenance and then some.

In terms of editing, I should note the recurring shots of passage (movement) through a doorway or arch, the point of view from behind the character (whether Lincoln, or otherwise) as the scene, the action, the future is seen and encountered. This seems to me to be a traditional and intuitive mans of presenting history and historical subjects visually.

Indeed, for the first half, Lincoln is shown from the rear or from the side. It’s only mid-way through, as he righteously declares his decision, pointing a long accusatory finger at his caviling cabinet members, that he appears face front. The transition of choice between shots is the fade to black, which apart from its implicit sobriety and restraint, telegraphs seriousness and significance, at least when coupled with the stately music of John Williams that establishes a somber rhythm, appropriate to the material, its historical consequence and the tragic conclusion of Lincoln’s triumphant Presidency.

All in all, the trailer makes clear that the holidays are here and the serious, Oscar-baiting films have arrived.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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One Response to LINCOLN TRAILER: What you See is What you Get

  1. Louie jones says:

    great post! Im intrigued to see the film now……..

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