'Lincoln' trailer: Know your Civil War history before watching Daniel Day-Lewis bring it to life

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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.

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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.

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