An intense and patriotic new trailer for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (November 9) premiered during the presidential debate. Political news wonks may seem an odd target audience for a Hollywood movie, but it makes sense for a period drama that is essentially about governing. “Lincoln” spends most of its time following the fierce battle waged by Abraham Lincoln to make his wartime Emancipation Proclamation into law.
Spielberg focused on the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency because, he told Empire:
“Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals is much too big a book to be a movie, so the Lincoln story only takes place in the last few months of his Presidency and life. I was interested in how he ended the war through all the efforts of his generals…but more importantly how he passed the 13th Amendment into constitutional law. The Emancipation Proclamation was a war powers act and could have been struck down by any court after the war ended…But what permanently ended slavery was the very close vote in the House of Representatives over the 13th Amendment – that story I’m excited to tell.”
“Lincoln” will not be in the style of “Amistad,” Spielberg insisted:
“Amistad is much more visual than Lincoln is going to be. It feels very much like a procedural. It shows Lincoln at work, not just Lincoln standing around posing for the history books…arguably the greatest working President in American history doing some of the greatest work for the world.”
The trailer was also targeting African-Americans watching America’s first black president stand up for his policies against his Mormon Republican challenger. The trailer begins with stock photos of Martin Luther King Jr., suffragettes, the World Trade Center and the Tribute in Light, before launching into a chaotic Civil War battle and Lincoln’s struggles to push through the 13th Amendment. This trailer, as opposed to the first one, shows the president at his most fiery and emotional. Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be channeling the real Lincoln, voice and all.
That is the source of the film’s strength. If the movie reaches into our guts and makes us remember who we are and where we’ve been, that’s good. Spileberg more than pulled off this sort of feat with Best Picture-winner “Schindler’s List,” which was considered so risky that it was made on a $21-million shoestring in 1994 and returned $321 million worldwide. But if “Lincoln” feels like a pretentious history lesson, that’s bad. In any case American President politics could be a tough sell in foreign countries. Awards cred will, of course, be crucial to branding this film around the world.
Thus Disney/Dreamworks faces a serious marketing challenge. Even with the uber-Spielberg brand and a must-see Day-Lewis performance, in commercial terms this movie is everything the studios are terrified of right now. (Even with two Oscar wins including Best Actor for Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood” grossed a total $76 million worldwide.) “Lincoln” is a serious talking head historic period drama. It’s expensive (DreamWorks’ official number is $65 million). While Disney comes out OK on its distribution deal with Dreamworks, Spielberg and Stacey Snider’s company needs to return multiple millions to its primary investor, Reliance. So the stakes are high.
The film also stars Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, John Hawkes, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Bruce McGill, Adam Driver, Walton Goggins, Hal Holbrook, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.