Special/Signature Issues » Abe Goes Hollywood

A Career Divided

How will Spielberg's "Lincoln" fare in the New Hollywood he helped create?

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It wasn't even two score years ago that a young, hungry filmmaker helped change Hollywood. Steven Spielberg did it with Bruce, the production crew's reported nickname for the mechanical shark in "Jaws" (1975), a crowd-pleasing, youth-oriented and now prototypical blockbuster that helped make Spielberg an A-list director.

"Jaws" wasn't Spielberg's first film, but it was his career maker. More than that, it was one of the films that ushered in what many people, including film historian Thomas Schatz, have called the New Hollywood.

That's basically the multiplex landscape we live in, which began when grand historical epics aimed at older generations, such as "Cleopatra" (1963) and "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964), nearly ruined studios, giving way to grand action epics aimed at a burgeoning youth audience. After some fine tuning in the 1980s, so that strategies such as synergy didn't create two-hour Bill Cosby product placements (see "Ghost Dad"), the industry rarely has looked back.

Spielberg, along with his friend George Lucas — whose Lucasfilm sold to Disney for more than $4 billion last week — made a lot of the hits in this period, many but not all with Reese's Pieces and menswear tie-ins (yes, there was "Jurassic Park" neckwear). But now he's made a movie that won't include a Happy Meal toy.

Spielberg releases "Lincoln" nationwide next Friday through DreamWorks and Touchstone. Focusing on the 16th president's efforts to pass the anti-slavery 13th Amendment, the film contains no candy placements. It does includes, perhaps, a best-selling soundtrack (with a score by John Williams) and definitely a plum role for Daniel Day-Lewis and other A-list stars, not to mention a handful of speaking roles for local actors and fleeting shots of hundreds of Richmond-area extras. The movie has had several invitation-only screenings. In Richmond, there was an advance preview Monday, with screenings for state officials, media, extras, crew members and others set for Thursday. All signs point to a grand historical epic.

At whom it's aimed is tough to say.

Because this isn't young Spielberg. This is, by his account, a story focused on procedure and politics, full of debates, introspection and only a glimpse of battlefield action. For Spielberg, this career reversal isn't only ironic, but also understandable — and maybe even inevitable. Spielberg, 65, told Lesley Stahl during a "60 Minutes" episode in October that action movies are all but behind him: "I knew I could do the action in my sleep. Action doesn't attract me anymore."

Another way to look at it is that Spielberg's action films don't attract audiences anymore. "War Horse," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull": None of those titles inspire the kind of awe and excitement the way many of Spielberg's earlier films do.

When you go through Spielberg's filmography, the list of great films isn't as lengthy or steady as that of others with the same name recognition, such as Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese. But Spielberg's hits are giants: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981); "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982); "Schindler's List" (1993); and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). They stop being as impressive, however, long before Spielberg stops making films.

The question is, will the history lesson in "Lincoln," as in "Schindler" and "Private Ryan," add to the Spielberg aura? Or will it be another average adventure for a bored power broker who used to make great films? On the one hand, the recent track record and the talky subject matter are worrisome. On the other, Spielberg often surprises for the better with historical epics that also have entertained. (Don't you wish, though, even if in secret, that "Lincoln" was made by the young Spielberg, and was more about Civil War battles than congressional ones?)

As far as predicting the film's success, it's important to remember that a focus on history doesn't necessarily place "Lincoln" outside the New Hollywood, which is well into a redefining period based largely on its seemingly unstoppable marketing, release and global positioning strategies. As far as box office and awards go, it doesn't seem to matter anymore if movies are merely average.

But the main draw and promise this time is the old New Hollywood strategy of the star director, Spielberg. He is a star for good reason. He offers proven ability to bring his distinct vision to a story. "Lincoln" will only be a failure if it turns out to be great yet ignored, because rather than relying on generic formulas of sex appeal and mindless action, it dares to be challenging. Then, at least, the failure wouldn't be Spielberg's. S

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