What's the Matter with 'Lincoln'?

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After switching over to CNN from the blessedly commercial-free PBS in search of a little more sensationalism with my debate analysis, I was immediately barraged by a new trailer for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, after which a friend turned to me and said, "Wait, that's coming out in the theaters? I thought it was a made for TV movie or something." And the thing is, he's not wrong. Despite all the grand lead-up to the making of this film — Tony Kushner's much whispered about script, long delays partly having to do with Liam Neeson climbing aboard and then leaving to be an action star — the promotional material is so far pretty underwhelming. And, if we're honest, a little silly.

It's a matter of public record that Lincoln had a somewhat high-pitched voice, but that doesn't make it any less jarring to hear Daniel Day-Lewis' cartoon farmer lilt in these clips. It's just so in contrast to all the booming and crescendoing of the music and images of the trailer. Not that that booming and crescendoing is really very good either, in fact it's mostly what contributes to the cheese factor. The story of Lincoln is so well-known, you can't escape grammar school without at least some sketchy version of it grafted onto your brain, that we don't really need all that sweeping string music and moody imagery to convince us it's an important story. Like, it's Abraham Lincoln, we get it. All the sturm und drang makes it seem like the movie is trying to cover up for some other weakness, which is not a good message to be sending in your big trailer.

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Given that the script is written by Tony Kushner, who can be sentimental but is certainly an intellectual first, it's quite possible that the actual film is something smart and worthwhile, but this marketing campaign is so far doing it no favors. It's understandable that the studio would want to find exciting ways to draw audiences into what is essentially a two-hour-plus debate about policy (very important, fundamental policy, but policy nonetheless), but in some ways you wish they'd respected Americans' savvy a bit more. We know when we're being given the Important Movie pander, and as Spielberg's own Amistad proved, we don't always respond the way the studio would hope to such urgent telegraphing. Though Lincoln comes fifteen years later in Spielberg's career and has the added benefit of a Tony Kushner script, so you'd think it would be a more assured film than Amistad, the trailers don't communicate that.

I don't think many of the people who are, right now, down on Lincoln thought they would be, given its pedigree. The Spielberg factor always gets some cineastes' hackles raised, but the movie also has Kushner and Day-Lewis, both approved members of the performing arts' famous elite. The rest of the cast — among them Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace, and David Strathairn — is strong too, full of respected old timers and relative new-comers. So there is a lot to look forward to, and yet sentiment towards the film has quickly soured. It's largely these trailers' fault, as hokey and Hallmark-y as they are, but I think maybe the other factor is that in a modern election year it's hard to feel anything but cynicism and exhaustion towards politics. We all know Lincoln was a great, if complicated, man who did great things, that's all well and good, but we're too busy dealing with all this contemporary nonsense, this muck here and now, to go watch Steven Spielberg bang a drum about some old news for two and a half hours. This movie feels sponsored by the U.S. government, as if it's meant to be a salve to help heal the burn of all this campaigning and to reconvince us of its greatness. Well, this movie ain't gonna do it, especially if it's as ham-handed as these trailers suggest. They need to rethink their marketing strategy asap, otherwise I'm worried Lincoln might be dead before he even gets to the theater.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.