There’s little question that “Lincoln” — which revisits the highly charged period when Lincoln faced down a fractious Congress to bully through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, permanently abolishing slavery — will draw large audiences curious to see how actor Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the title role and eager to commune, at least cinematically, with one of the country’s most cherished leaders.
Still, it’s just as likely that “Lincoln” will resonate very differently with some viewers Nov. 9 depending on what happens Nov. 6. (The film hits theaters throughout the country Nov. 16.) If President Obama is reelected, his most ardent supporters may well see an allegory for their own candidate’s last four years of navigating partisan rancor to effect sweeping change. If he loses, Lincoln will embody the very character and political genius that Obama’s detractors insist he lacked throughout an administration marked by squandered promise and ideological gridlock.
With both parties claiming the 16th president as their own, doesn’t that mean that half the electorate might avoid “Lincoln” as a painful reminder of what might have been?
Spielberg doesn’t think so. “I think the timing is the right way to go,” he said. “Either way, the film, I think, will hopefully have some kind of soothing or even healing effect.”
“Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner agreed, noting that, “whatever happens, one of the lessons you take from the life of Lincoln is that you have to have faith in the democratic process,” he said. “And you have to keep faith with it. Had the South not seceded at that moment, had they stayed in and fought [politically] . . . 600,000 people might not have gone to their deaths on a battlefield. An easy recourse to despair and contempt for the system was as active and virulent in the days of the Civil War as it is now . . . but if you believe in equality and justice and really, in a certain sense, in government, you have to keep working towards building a better society that our still-functioning democracy allows.”
The dynamics of when to release a politically themed film can be dicey, with millions of dollars in production and marketing budgets at stake. Oliver Stone brought out “W.,” his satirical portrait of George W. Bush, in the waning months of Bush’s second administration, and viewers stayed away — not only was such an assessment of his presidency premature, most observers agreed, but it wasn’t nearly as compelling as the Obama-McCain campaign unfolding in real life. In 2000, “Thirteen Days,” a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, arrived in theaters in the toxic aftermath of the Bush v. Gore re-count. The film was only a modest success, perhaps because audiences were exhausted after a season of political strife. But “Thirteen Days” wound up being politically pivotal, playing an important role in Bush’s nascent first term when he invited Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to a private screening in the White House.