NEW YORK — With much fanfare leading up to the reveal, Disney finally launched the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” this evening. The event was part of a Google Play cross-promotion with Spielberg and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt on hand in a Google+ Hangout to take questions from selected fans for 30 minutes after the trailer debuted.
The event was simultaneously broadcast on the ABC SuperSign in Times Square, where a modest group of people stopped to watch and snap photos as rush hour dwindled. Google users’ comments scrolled across the sign with exclamations like “Those are all gonna be great performances!” and “Anyone else smell the coming Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis?”
Calling the production “one of the most compelling experiences” he has had making a film, Spielberg noted that it was important to get a penetrating and thorough look at Lincoln as a man, not as a myth. And one way into that was to focus on the final four months of his presidency, rather than the entire width and breadth of it, and his cues were taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” on which Tony Kushner’s screenplay is based.
“The last four months he was very, very focused on two issues,” he said. “One of course was ending the war and the second issue was passing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. To see him working on a specific action really gives you an idea of what it must have been like to be Abraham Lincoln, and not just to be him, but to be a member of his family, to be Robert Lincoln, to be Tad Lincoln, to be Mary Todd Lincoln.”
Gordon-Levitt seconded the thought, adding that for him, it was a relief to see the film dig in and present an icon as a human being, above all else. “We deify this man,” he said. “He’s on our five dollar bill. He’s in huge statues. He’s become this icon of American culture, and I just loved seeing a movie where he is a human being, that’s flawed, that makes mistakes, that has to compromise, because let’s face it, there’s a lot of that in our culture right now. We sort of take people and turn them into icons and symbols and stop treating them or thinking of them as human beings.”
Part of that sense of human frailty is evident, Gordon-Levitt said, in the Lincolns’ desire to keep their son, Robert — who the actor plays in the film — from enlisting in the Union Army. “They’ve already lost two sons and are sort of giving him special treatment to keep him out of the Army, which makes him feel like an outsider and very alienated and ashamed of himself,” Gordon-Levitt said. “And it just goes to show that the movie doesn’t paint Lincoln as this perfect monument but as a man that has really complicated issues to contend with.”
Regarding the collaboration with actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg said it was a privilege to be able to direct someone he views as arguably one of the greatest actors in the world. “Daniel does incredible preparation when he tackles any role,” he said, “and he really honored Lincoln by reading so much about him, even more than I ever did. He came up with his interpretation based on everything he read and everything he experienced just within his own process, and he just delivers Lincoln as I imagine, as we all imagine, Lincoln perhaps was to very, very many people in his life and in his administration.”
Spielberg made it a point of mentioning that the film will not have huge action scenes depicting Civil War battle or be presented on an epic canvas with sequences detailing the plight of 19th Century slaves. “This is the story of the fight to get this amendment passed,” he said. “You have to bring a little bit of knowledge of history and a little bit of context to what we’re going to present to you.”
The parallels to the modern socio-political environment weren’t overly seized upon in the discussion, but Gordon-Levitt’s comment about iconography certainly hinted at it. And Spielberg did, too, when he noted of his discoveries in developing the project, “I was surprised…at how [Lincoln] was able to ingratiate and put into great use men — smart, learned individuals — who were in opposition to him, who ran against him. His Secretary of State, who was his greatest supporter in this fight to get the 13th Amendment passed, ran against him for the nomination and lost, and Lincoln turned right around and put him in his cabinet.” One couldn’t help but think of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“He was very bipartisan in the sense that he went for the best person for the job,” Spielberg continued. “He was very willing to listen to people who opposed him, who criticized him for being too slow [to act].”
And there seemed to be a glimmer of the modern parallel in Spielberg’s thoughts about what he’d like an audience to take away from the film, as well.
“I certainly would love you to take away the burden that leadership requires,” he said, “and the kind of weight that this kind of leader [carried] — especially this president, during a time when the country was torn into. The entire Constitution was in jeopardy. The founding fathers were in jeopardy of losing this democratic creation. And the kind of weight that Lincoln has to bear, the responsibility and his duty to the Constitution…
“All presidents swear an oath to the Constitution, to keep this country united, and when the country fell apart, Lincoln had to put it back together again, with a lot of help. But he bore total responsibility. And he was also trying to reassemble a family that was in jeopardy of dissolution. So I hope people can see the kind of burden that leadership requires, the kind of sense of real passion for something you really believe in. Lincoln believed in the American people.”
“Lincoln” opens November 9.