‘Lincoln’ premiere a reminder that in heat of campaign, political films walk a fine line

(David James, SMPSP/ Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC ) - Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln, far right, meets with his Cabinet to discuss the planned attack on Fort Fisher in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's drama “Lincoln.”

(David James, SMPSP/ Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC ) - Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln, far right, meets with his Cabinet to discuss the planned attack on Fort Fisher in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's drama “Lincoln.”

The release of a politically themed movie at the height of a contentious election is nearly always fraught with peril, even when the subject is perhaps the most transcendent figure in American political history. But Steven Spielberg, whose movie “Lincoln” opens in Washington on Friday, believes the timing couldn’t be better.

“This is a good time to reintroduce Lincoln to the country,” the director argued at his New York office recently, “in a period of time when the ground will still be smoldering after the first Tuesday in November.”

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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.

Philip Zelikow, whose book about the missile crisis inspired the film and who attended the White House screening, says he didn’t realize how pivotal the occasion would become, both substantively and symbolically. “Ted Kennedy would become perhaps [Bush’s] single most important congressional ally in the months before 9/11” on health reform, Zelikow says. “So as an icebreaker with Ted Kennedy, I think [the screening] mattered. And the Bush people certainly picked it up and handled it in the appropriately graceful way. The movie gave them the occasion to remind people that the president is bigger than a political party.”

Politics have threaded their way through a number of movies that were or are about to be released this year. On Sunday, the National Geographic Channel aired “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden,” a docu-drama that’s hard not to see as timed by its producer — Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein — to remind voters of one of the president’s greatest strategic successes. (Last month, Weinstein released the conservative-tweaking political satire “Butter,” starring Jennifer Garner as a thinly veiled amalgam of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.)

Weinstein and National Geographic officials have insisted that the air date of “SEAL Team Six” wasn’t intended to sway the election but instead to head off “Zero Dark Thirty,” a theatrical feature about the search for bin Laden due out later this year. That film ran into its own political buzz saw in 2011 when U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) accused the White House of leaking classified details of the mission to screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow in order to burnish Obama’s image. “Zero Dark Thirty” was scheduled for release in October until its distributor, Columbia Pictures, pushed the film back to December. (It will now open in New York and Los Angeles in December before opening throughout the country in January. The Weinstein Company similarly repositioned “Killing Them Softly,” a crime thriller starring Brad Pitt that alternates scenes of pulverizing violence with lacerating critiques of the current economy that spare neither Bush nor Obama.)

Boal insists that neither he or Bigelow have discussed how the election results will impact “Zero Dark Thirty,” either at the box office or as a cultural milestone. The question “hasn’t come up at all,” he wrote in an e-mail. Noting that the film is about career intelligence and military professionals, not the White House, Boal added, it “has no partisan agenda whatsoever. To me, the charges otherwise were completely bogus. But I hope people will see the movie and judge for themselves.”

As for the shifts in release dates, Boal says that decision was purely commercial; opening a movie in a few theaters in December and into January is a time-honored strategy for garnering award nominations and capitalizing on the ensuing buzz.

Still, it can’t hurt that “Zero Dark Thirty” will be appearing on screens after this year’s political rancor has dissipated. Studios rarely leave such things to chance: Marketing campaigns for big-studio films routinely engage focus groups and other research strategies to predict whether and how a film will resonate with viewers. Even if filmgoers make present-day comparisons through a partisan lens while watching “Lincoln,” for example, the filmmakers are banking on patriotism transcending politics, as viewers encounter one of the country’s most beloved historical figures at the height of his powers and personal charisma.

In fact, “Lincoln” contains all the elements that spell success for a political-themed movie, according to director Rod Lurie, who has made a career-long study of what makes such films succeed. “It has to be about a president, not someone in the legislature or the Supreme Court, because anything other than president is petty,” Lurie said. “It has to be aspirational. We don’t want to go see movies about bad presidents who are dark and evil — we get enough of that at home. And usually it has to be nonpartisan.”

In October 2000, Lurie released his political thriller “The Contender,” just as the Bush-Gore campaign was nearing its breathless conclusion. Although the film was a critical success and earned Oscar nominations for Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen, Lurie believes that its left-leaning sensibility, as well as negative sniping from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and critic Michael Medved, alienated conservative filmgoers.

“It was almost a political statement not to have gone to that film,” he said.

Dustin Lance Black, who wrote “Milk,” about gay rights leader Harvey Milk, said that he and director Gus Van Sant had wanted the film to come out before the election in 2008, and perhaps influence the debate surrounding California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state.

Instead, “Milk” came out just after the election. But, Black notes now, “It served as something I never expected it to. It served as a refocusing and education tool for the younger generation, to start fighting this struggle differently. . . . A lot of individuals and certain organizations took a moment and looked back to Milk’s era to examine why he was winning in a more homophobic time. We started to correct some of the missteps we were making in the ’90s, and I think ‘Milk’ was a piece of that.”

As for films currently in the pipeline, it’s an open question what impact this week’s election will have on their resonance with audiences.

In the case of the Secret Service thriller “White House Down,” which stars Jamie Foxx as a fictional president and is scheduled to come out in June, “I personally don’t think it’s going to matter,” says producer Brad Fischer. “Whether Obama or Romney wins, I think the same people are going to show up and see our movie and hopefully have a really great time, regardless of who’s in the White House.”

But director Lee Daniels is watching the election results with more anxiety. His film “The Butler,” which dramatizes the story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, comes out next year. The film — based on an article by Washington Post staff writer Wil Haygood — ends with the main character, an African American who has served eight presidents, seeing Obama in the White House.

If Obama wins, Daniels says simply, “We’ll feel the butler’s journey was worth it.” If Obama loses, Daniels predicts, “the movie will land completely differently. There will be a bittersweetness and a sadness about his journey. And I think the audience will feel it.”

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