By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 14, 2012 at 12:14PM
With TIFF peaking earlier this week, by far the biggest story of the past few days has been last night's debut of the trailer for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." Probably one of the most anticipated films of the year, the match-up between America's most beloved filmmaker and its most legendary President has seemed like a potent one ever since the project was announced seven years ago. And a casting change -- swapping out Liam Neeson for two-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis -- and a star-laden list of supporting players, only made it seem more and more like the film could turn out to be a major achievement.
Of course, with the film targeting a November release date, talk of the picture has gone hand-in-hand with its Oscar chances, and it seems that many have reacted to the trailer with that in mind. Has Spielberg made a film that's the culmination of a lifelong dream? Or is it a cynical attempt to get back on the podium at the Dolby Theater by hitting all the stereotypical awards picture markers?
There certainly seem to be plenty that believe the latter, with the trailer seemingly getting a somewhat muted reaction across the internet, with the shadow of the director's last film, "War Horse," looming fairly large. "More melodramatic, cliched Spielberg popcorn fodder," wrote one of our commenters. "The whole thing is kind of boring to me," added another, while one compared the clip to "Home For Purim" in Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration." We're not sure we see it ourselves, but points for the obscurity of the reference. And yet another wrote, somewhat schizophrenically, "DDL is an overpraised actor working with an overpraised director in my opinion. The two of them are fantastic, no doubt, but really?"
Now, if the internet has taught us anything, it's that a filmmaker could upload a video of themselves saving orphans from a burning building, and someone would hate it. But many would argue that between "Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of Crystal Skull," "The Adventures Of Tintin" and "War Horse," Spielberg is on one of the more disappointing runs of his career, and there are legitimate causes for concern here. Dusty courtroom settings out of "Amistad," a treacly, opening-credits-of-an-Aaron-Sorkin-show score from John Williams (coming off "War Horse," arguably his most overwrought score ever), and grand lines that seem to be not so much spoken as declaimed -- it's also decidedly lacking in a sense of humor, from what we've seen thus far.
And yet we still feel there's much to be intrigued by. Out of context, the lines might creak a little ("Leave the constitution alone," etc.), but the script is by Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the scribe behind "Munich," a film which ranks among the director's very best, and is certainly one of his most adult and complex. The source material is Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team Of Rivals," also a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a detailed and comprehensive look (as the book's subtitle says) at the political genius of Lincoln.
Furthermore, despite the yawning claims of some that the film will be another sprawling biopic, Kushner and Spielberg have taken their cues from Goodwin's book, and focused the film tightly on the last four years of Lincoln's life. Sprawling it might turn out to be, but this isn't going to be some meandering biopic trying to cover everything in two-and-a-half hours. Also, Daniel Day-Lewis looks to be as immersed in his character as ever. These are all things that aren't exactly going to be reflected in a trailer -- something that Spielberg was at pains to emphasize in the Google Hangout preamble, suggesting maybe he isn't crazy about the marketing either. That isn't to say that the director's trademark sentiment won't be found in the film, but as "Munich" and others have proven, the director's capable of navigating rich layers of character, and a Lincoln seemingly haunted by the dead of the Civil War in the trailer seems to reflect that.
Perhaps more importantly, to dismiss the film as nothing but awards bait is simply misguided (as it normally is when you try and pinpoint a filmmaker's intentions). Spielberg has two Best Director Oscars. Day-Lewis has two for Best Actor. We're sure they wouldn't be upset at the prospect at winning their third statuettes, but that's not going to have been their motivation. Given that Spielberg has been working on the project for years, and that the picky Day-Lewis chose this project, we don't think we're being generous or naive by believing that they simply wanted to tell this story. We don't know if "Lincoln" will be any good or not (though reactions may start leaking this month as we've heard press will start seeing it soon), but we certainly hope it is. It could well turn out to be another "War Horse," or, god forbid, another "Always." But at any rate, Spielberg's ambitions are not just limited to how many Oscars he may or may not get.