I’m a fan of movies. I’m a fan of big movies, of historical movies, of Important Movies. Total sucker for biographical movies. Love to read nonfiction, about American history in particular. So I should already be lining up for the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the nakedly calculated Fall Prestige Picture sure to win Oscars for everyone involved, right?
On paper, this thing seems like a slam dunk: Daniel Day Lewis, the human chameleon most recently seen making his eyes literally (and I do mean literally) gleam with evil intent in There Will Be Blood, is playing Honest Abe. (I wish — and I realize this would turn it into a completely different kind of movie — that the movie were called Honest Abe and everyone addressed him only as Honest Abe, as in: “Honest Abe! General Lee is about to take Manassas!” and “Do you think we’ll ever free the slaves, Honest Abe?” But I digress.) The movie is based in part on the book everyone talked about and nobody read during the 2008 election cycle, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” It has a long list of dependable actors on its call sheet. It’s getting nothing but valentines from critics. How could it not be great?
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling, watching the trailer, that it looks like the bad TV adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” that Bill Murray is producing live on Christmas Eve in Scrooged.
Let’s have a look, shall we?
0:14: A soupçon of mournful piano over brutal, hand to hand combat, topped by a recitation of the Gettysburg Address. Might as well call off the Oscars right now and ship the whole lot straight to Spielberg.
0:22: Wait, it’s not Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, it’s some black guy. Why is he saying it to Lincoln? I thought Lincoln made that speech. Is this movie about how Lincoln plagiarized his most famous speech from a black guy? That’s almost as bad as Elvis, and Vanilla Ice.
And why does it look like Lincoln is standing on the roof of a car and looking down at him?
0:29: Here come the angelic strings and the DreamWorks logo. I’m getting choked up and I don’t even know what this movie is yet, all I know is it will make me cry.
031: “We can’t tell our people they can vote yes on abolishing slavery unless at the same time we can tell them that you’re seeking a negotiated peace.” Um, I don’t mean to seem dim, but what does that mean? Totally void of context, it’s a bit of a headscratcher. Is this what the movie’s about? Is this its most exciting moment? I don’t want to be a pessimist, but Lincoln is opening the same day as the new James Bond movie, and I don’t think this is the way to beat it.
0:39: Lincoln is hypnotizing himself! I wonder why? Just when I thought this looked like a boring costume drama, it gets interesting. If Lincoln was into self-hypnosis, that’s some dark, fringey stuff. Does he have pants on? I need to know more!
0:45: Oh cool, Rorschach is in this movie! I’m quickly warming up to this thing. “Hundreds of thousands have died under your administration,” he’s saying. Not to nitpick, but isn’t that true under every administration? I hope there’s a scene where he tells Lincoln, “I’m not locked in here with you — you’re locked in here with me!” and they fight it out.
1:00: Cue the angelic choir as Lincoln exhorts the other people at his D&D game to act “Now! Now! Now!” I bet this is one of those scenes that’s in the trailer that doesn’t make it to the finished movie.
1:10: A new, triumphant music cue, the first use of the words “Abraham Lincoln,” and Tommy Lee Jones in the most unflattering wig since Marv Albert’s. I want to know the story on this wig. Were men still wearing wigs in the 1860s? It doesn’t matter: now I’m no longer thinking about Lincoln, or what angle Spielberg is taking with this movie, and thinking about Tommy Lee Jones in a weird curly brown wig. I just rewatched Oliver Stone’s JFK the other day, where Mr. Jones looks totally natural in a silver flat-top — and that was 21 years ago. It might as well have been Scrappy-Doo delivering that line for all the gravitas it has coupled with that wig. Boo to the wig!
1:15: Oh boy, now here’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, dutifully fulfilling his recently signed contract to appear in every movie filmed in the U.S. for the next nine years, in Union blue and a totally unconvincing moustache. Look, I have the facial growth of an eleven-year-old girl, so I’m not faulting him for that, just… production designer? Makeup artist? Mr. Spielberg? That moustache is taking me out of the trailer again and making me think about Leo DiCaprio in The Departed, or Johnny Depp when he’s not making a movie (because no director with working eyes would let him try to grow a moustache). I should be thinking about stakes and conflicts, not about that moustache.
1:34: “Do we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we’re born to?” Does that even make sense? Nobody chooses to be born, everyone adapts to the times they’re born to, and neither has anything to do with the other. And why is the guy from Girls in this movie? With the same haircut he has on Girls?
1:52: From the looks of this trailer this whole movie takes place in four places: the House of Representatives, a battlefield, some kind of drawing room, and on a dock next to a steamboat. When you’re a young filmmaker just starting out, you’ve got to do a lot for very little money. Just think what Steven Spielberg will be able to accomplish once he gets a little success!
2:08: “Shall we stop this bleeding?” If by that you mean stop watching this trailer for a three-hour movie that bored me in less than two minutes, then yes, Mr. President, let’s stop the bleeding.