An hors d’oeuvre to whet your appetite for the full trailer on Thursday. I’m in an odd spot for this movie because, on the one hand, my expectations are off-the-charts high — with Spielberg directing and Day Lewis in the lead, I’m more or less expecting Lincoln to be resurrected — but on the other hand, I have no expectations at all. Will it be schmaltzy melodrama? Hyperrealistic and unromantic? Will it try to humanize Lincoln or build on the legend of a remote, martyred warrior-poet? Little of both? Something else? The gratuitous piano bit in the teaser here makes me think it’ll lean towards schmaltz, which is unfortunate given that the tragedy of this story, of all stories, doesn’t need to be telegraphed. But we’ll see.
One other reason to watch: It’s our first exposure to the voice. I knew that Lincoln had a touch of Kentucky twang, but it’s still jarring to hear it here; my own mental template of the Civil War typically doesn’t afford the leader of the union a southern accent. The voice is also correct insofar as it’s not the low, solemn register that portrayals of Lincoln typically depend on. His voice, according to contemporaries, was high — at times almost disagreeably high, “almost as high pitched as a boatswain’s whistle.” That’s not what you’re hearing from Day-Lewis here, but (a) no one will fault him and Spielberg for a bit of creative license to avoid “what the hell?” reactions from the audience, and (b) Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer says that the accounts of Lincoln’s voice being high are likely overstated.
“Lincoln’s voice, as far as period descriptions go, was a little shriller, a little higher,” says Holzer. It would be a mistake to say that his voice was squeaky though. “People said that his voice carried into crowds beautifully. Just because the tone was high doesn’t mean it wasn’t far-reaching,” he says.
When Holzer was researching his 2004 book Lincoln at Cooper Union, he noticed an interesting consistency in the accounts of those who attended Lincoln’s speaking tour in February and March 1860. “They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured,” says Holzer. “I am paraphrasing, but there is ten minutes of saying, what the heck is that, and then all of a sudden it’s the ideas that supersede whatever flaws there are.” Lincoln’s voice needed a little time to warm up, and Holzer refers to this ten-minute mark as the “magical moment when the voice fell into gear.”
We’ll see if they can capture that effect without maudlin tinkling piano. More to come on Thursday.