erik lundegaard

The Evolution of Jeffrey Wells' Thinkin' on 'Lincoln'

Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere isn't much of a fan of Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln.” Here's how he got there.

He started out last March with a joke, kind of, that Daniel Day-Lewis was a shoo-in for the Oscar...

  • March 14: “Who's gonna take Lewis's Oscar away? Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby? Phillip Seymour Hoffman as The Master? Bill Murray as FDR? Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe in Les Miserables? Nobody is going to beat Honest Abe-who-gets-shot. It's over. Forget it.” — “Same Result Anyway.”

He also wrote about the other Lincoln movie last year, the one about the vampire hunter. Thus begins Wells' obsession with Lincoln's voice...

  • May 28: “Listen to Benjamin Walker's Abraham Lincoln voice in this recently-released trailer for Timur Bekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter ... He almost sounds JFK-like, but Lincolnesque? Not if you buy the old story about the 16th President's son, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), having heard Raymond Massey perform on stage and being ”struck by the close similarity of Massey's speaking voice to that of his father.“ — ”Voice is Wrong.“

In July he starts counseling Disney on how to open the movie. First he suggests not showing it to anyone before it opens...

  • July 18: ”Do you want to hear a bold, bold, bold idea? Show Lincoln to absolutely no one until opening day. Make them scream and pant for it and say “nope...sorry, kids...too bad...this is a really good film, but first and foremost it's for the a ticket.” — Lincoln Is Sooner Than You Think”

Then he wonders why Disney isn't showing it at the New York Film Festival before it opens. Maybe it's bad?

  • July 29: “A little while back I floated a notion about Steven Spielberg's Lincoln being the closing-night attraction at the New York Film Festival on Sunday, 10.14. That would be only three and half weeks before the opening. The media-fed response would certainly get the word-of-mouth rolling if the film is any good. But since I wrote that to put this?...insect-antennae vibrations are suggesting that Disney might not be interested. ... If Disney and Spielberg have the goods then they have the goods --- it can't possibly be a harmful thing to let people know that Lincoln is (let's use our fertile imaginations) a very special, moving, possibly austere, high-calibre historical drama. Unless, of course, Lincoln is Amistad by way of War Horse — unless it's some kind of treacly, commercial, family-friendly, emotionally shameless ”Spielberg film“ in the worst sense of that term. — ”All Them Lincoln Conundrums“

Now comes the nitpicking. The hair is wrong. The voice is wrong. The music is wrong. The voice is really wrong. I wish I could smell what the White House smelled like back then. Have I mentioned how much I REALLY, REALLY HATE the voice yet? That high tenor? It should sound LEGENDARY. It should sound MANLY. Instead of like MATTHEW MODINE. (No offense, Matthew.) This is two months before the movie opens...

  • August 7: ”I've never seen any photos of Abraham Lincoln in which he looked quite this gray [as in the poster]. His hair is flecked with gray around the temples in those portraits he sat for in early 1865, but Daniel Day Lewis almost looks like a silver fox here. Plus his hair is too neatly combed.“ — ”The Grey“
  • August 8: ”This is what I want, partly, from Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Not just toilet and bathtub information but various hints of the quality and texture of life in the 1860s. Imagine how amazing it would be if Spielberg had decided to present the film in Smellovision or Aroma-rama, then we'd have an idea of what the White House might have actually smelled like from time to time. Think of the transportation!“ — ”White House Plumbing“
  • September 13: ”I still don't like the sound of Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln voice. I almost hate it, in a way. It's flat, undistinctive, unimpressive, Matthew Modine-ish. (And that's not a putdown of Modine.) It's hard to describe what I was looking to hear, but this isn't it. And I dearly love the voices that Lewis has given us over the years. The fault, of course, is Spielberg's — he didn't push Lewis hard enough, he let well enough alone.“ — ”Not Right“
  • September 15: ”It's not just Daniel Day Lewis's decision to channel Matthew Modine in his voicing of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's forthcoming biopic. My insect antennae are also picking up hints of that old Spielbergian schmaltz, particularly among the strains of John Williams' music. I'm hoping for something deeper and grander but we all know who and what Spielberg is, and I smell trouble, real trouble.“ — That Sinking Lincoln Feeling (with Tweet from film critic Jimmy Fallon)
  • September 18: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln won't screen for critics until next week, but already there is a certain pushback in the form of concern about Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln voice. It ain't right. ... A director-writer who knows people and gets around says he's heard that ”DDL's Lincoln voice tries to be consistent with what the actual man's sounded like, but aside from an impassioned, impressive performance the film is another Amistad with good intentions outweighing a good film.“-- Lincoln Snowball Gaining Size?“
  • October 3: ”I despise the wussy timbre of Daniel Day Lewis's Abraham Lincoln voice. Even more than I did before. It's chalk on blackboard.“ — ”With Every Fibre of My Being...“

After all that, he begins to wonder, ”Hey, how come Disney isn't inviting me to any of the premieres?“

  • October 4: ”Next Monday night's New York Film Festival debut of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is unexpected, for sure, and the bravest thing that Disney marketing has done on behalf of this Tony Kushner-scripted film. Before this moment Disney has been presenting a cautious if not timid face to the world, particularly in its decision to take the AFI Fest's closing-night slot, which is only hours before the 11.9 opening. ...  [But] it burns me that Glenn Kenny and Kris Tapley will be seeing Daniel Day Lewis's Honest Abe by way of Walter Brennan and Matthew Modine before me...“ — Lincoln's Big NYFF Debut“
  • October 5: ”As an accredited New York Film Festival press pass holder, I requested a ticket to Monday night's “secret” Lincoln screening at Alice Tully Hall, as everyone else with the same pass did. It took the NYFF all day to say “sorry, we can't help.” Uh-huh. I don't know but I strongly suspect there's a general coordinated strategy to keep me away from this puppy.“ — Blood Is Up

But in November, with the rest of us, he finally sees it, and delivers a ”Yes, but...“ review. Yes, it's good, but... Yes, it's serious, but... No, I'm cool with that, but...

  • November 8: ”I myself was never bored, mind — I love history and period realism — but I would argue that the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment is an interesting saga with some great dialogue (Tommy Lee Jones' anger moments might be the best thing about it), but it's not a riveting one. It's not really movie material, certainly by today's standards. It's Showtime or PBS or History Channel material writ large by the Spielberg brand and the soulful skills of Daniel Day Lewis. Anyone who cares about doing this kind of thing correctly will understand and respect what Spielberg has tried to do, and in many ways has succeeded at.“ --”Lincoln in Kaminskiville by Way of History Channel“

He also incorrectly predicts box-office disaster...

He searches for people who agree with him. Here's one: an unnamed producer! Who says he would've left early but AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN was sitting next to him, weeping, and to walk out would be unseemly. Leading JW to imagine this scene:

  • November 10: Weeping African-American Guy: ”Ohh-hoh-hoh...heeeeshh-hee-hee...hee-hee-heesh....weep...weep.“ Producer: ”Excuse me there, fella. Gotta get by.“ Weeping African-American Guy: ”I, uh....wait, you're leaving? I don't even know you but you're leaving? What are you made of? You're walking out on a movie about Abraham Lincoln? Did you vote for Romney? Producer: “It's a free country, pal...okay? You can weep and moan and make all the noise you want, but this is a slow turgid thing and it's not doing it for me. And I voted for Obama, if you want to know.” --Lincoln Reactions, Please

The New York Times agrees with him, too...

  • November 17: “The 11.16 N.Y. Times ”Sweet Spot“ (i.e., A.O. Scott and David Carr chit-chatting and sometimes interviewing Times staffers) is about guilty non-pleasures — art forms and entertainments that you're supposed to like but you just can't. And the most persistent non-pleasure of the Times newsroom? Lincoln.” — Not to Beat a Dead Horse

You know who else agrees with him? Everyone....

  • November 17: “I stood in an Arclight lobby the other night (i.e., just before the Anna Karenina premiere screening) as a crowd that had just seen Lincoln walked past me. They were a bit glummed out; their faces seemed a little somber and even haggard. No faint smiles; no looks of calm or serenity. Most seemed to be saying to themselves, 'All right, that's over...where can we eat? In fact, let's just get a drink.'”Homework and Trances

Then he focuses on the horse-race aspect of the best picture race and keeps veering wildly between narratives: either “Lincoln is losing air” or “Lincoln is a lock”...

  • November 14: “Lincoln is a Best Picture nominee, yes, but rarified, Kaminski-ized and all but entombed. Lincoln is inflated because it just opened and is flower-fresh in Guru minds and did well at the box-office...but there are little pin holes that people don't want to look at. Helium is escaping as we speak.” --Gurus of Delusion
  • December 5: “Some [Oscar voters] would like to give it to Lincoln or Les Miz but they're not feeing the current in the rapids and they can feel the ardor cooling down (certainly with Lincoln). ... They have two choices. They can go with the unassailable Zero Dark Thirty — the flinty, pruned-down CIA docudrama with Jessica Chastain's super-tough heroine, or with the jazzy, spazzy, warmly emotional and hyper-intelligent Silver Linings Playbook, the movie that restored respect to the seriously tarnished romantic comedy genre ...” — Boiled Down, Translated
  • December 11: “2012 is over and Lincoln is probably going to win Best Picture. I can't stand it. I don't want to think about it any more. I just want to focus on January and February releases and on the Sundance, Santa Barbara and Berlin film festivals.” — Move On

Finally, after dismissing “Lincoln” by disparaging Daniel Day-Lewis' voice, then Steven Spielberg's direction, he decides to dismiss it by attacking Abraham Lincoln himself. He imagines a movie called “Johnson,” about Lincoln's successor, and suggests it wouldn't get the best-picture attention “Lincoln” does because we don't care about Andrew Johnson...

  • December 18: “I'm just making a mild, even-handed point about Lincoln, which is that deep down much if not most of the acclaim for Spielberg's film is about our lifelong embrace of the legend of Abraham Lincoln. Is it a good film? Yes. Is it a very good film? You could argue this. But if Johnson was just as good as Lincoln and perhaps in some ways a little bit better (you can't beat that Senate vote on impeachment for a third-act climax), you know it wouldn't be the same thing. Be honest and ask yourself — how much of the Lincoln acclaim is really about the film itself and how much of it is about the worship of a great man and a great historical figure? You know what the answer is. You know it.” — Steven Spielberg's Johnson

And on and on. Wells posted about “Lincoln” again last night. Spielberg's movie, introduced by a former president (Clinton), lost the Golden Globe to “Argo” and Wells thinks that matters in the Oscar race even though the GGs, with two options (drama, musical/comedy), have predicted Oscar's best picture only twice in the last eight years. But no matter. He sees “Argo” as the front-runner again. He thinks it looks like, it feels like, a brand new day...

  • January 13, 2013: Argo winning Best Motion Picture, Drama and Ben Affleck winning for Best Director tonight came right on the heels of the BFCA Critics Choice awards deciding to give the same awards, and I think that tore it. I think everyone except for the Lincoln die-hards realized tonight that Lincoln doesn't have the horses to win the Best Picture Oscar, and Spielberg is probably out of the running also. And the reason for the latter, I think, is that he looked scared tonight. Playing the Clinton card was basically Spielberg saying to himself, ”How do we shake this race loose and tip it in our favor? Obviously we have support but possibly not enough. That fucking Critics Choice Argo win didn't help any. I know...I'll call up Bill Clinton and have him make a pitch for it!“ ... It's now Argo in the lead for Best Picture vs. Silver Linings Playbook with Lincoln in third place.” — The Clinton Card

Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" (2012)

“I despise the wussy timbre of Daniel Day Lewis's Abraham Lincoln voice. Even more than I did before. It's chalk on blackboard.” — Jeffrey Wells

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Posted at 07:54 AM on Mon. Jan 14, 2013 in category Movies  


Reed wrote:

I kind of get it. This is totally over the top by Wells, but I was talking with a friend and fellow movie fanatic yesterday about seeing Lincoln. We were both kind of saying, “I dunno. It's probably going to win Best Picture. And I'm sure Lewis is pretty amazing here. But I'm not sure I'm gonna bother.” And my friend was more adamant than I was about not seeing it. Further complicating this discussion, he pays a monthly fee for unlimited movie passes. He's already paid to see all the movies he wants just two blocks from his house. He doesn't want to see it FOR FREE. Also, we're both from Illinois. What is the reason for this reticence? From my perspective, it is surely the Spielberg brand.

Why am I hesitant? War Horse, Indiana Jones and the Superfluous Sequel, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, AI, etc. Even his more interesting recent work such as Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report were all Spielberged up (the hokey tacked on voiceover happy ending stands out most notably). (I should say I have not seen Munich, which is likely the best of his recent work.) Rather than antennae vibrations, his trademark cheesiness is like a dog whistle for me. And I'm afraid that as soon as I encounter anything resembling it, I'm going to be upset, especially because I feel Lincoln deserves to be one of the most revered historic figures.

This is all very silly - it's a movie, and I'm curious about it, so I will almost surely see it eventually. And I'm not saying Wells is justified in his approach. Mine is (hopefully) a more rational point of view. But I can see how the seed may have been planted and now he's simply determined not to uproot the plant for some strange reason. I won't have that problem as I try to be open-minded about all movies I haven't seen before. (Though Brian DePalma will likely never climb out of the mental hole I've put him in.) Anyway, I tried to convince my friend to see Lincoln when it arrives in Europe. And I'll try to convince myself, too. Wells' opinion holds little sway. Erik Lundegaards holds a whole bunch.

Comment posted on Mon. Jan 14, 2013 at 08:54 AM

Not Pentala Harikrishna, for sure wrote:

This summary definitely put Jeff Wells in a mental hole he won't get out of soon (along with Brian dePalma, to be sure.)

And with Reed's helpful context on why I'm always suspicious of going to see a Spielberg movie, I realize now that this is the best Spielberg I've seen in a very long time. Yes, there are treacly touches, but for the most part his direction didn't bother me much. The terrific writing (Kushner) and acting (DDL) make it easy to recommend to anyone. Yes, it was a bit of a “duty” to drag myself to see this movie, but I came out happy — and my happiness has grown in the following weeks as I've relished the memories of Abe's meandering but deeply sincere speaking style, which felt perfect whether he was talking to family, his advisors or a crowd.

I've been sitting here trying to think of another director who I would have preferred make this movie, and drawing a blank. Any suggestions? Sidney Lumet didn't live long enough.

Comment posted on Mon. Jan 14, 2013 at 11:45 AM

Erik wrote:

I'm bad at the director game: Who should've directed what, etc. And I agree on Spielberg's recent work. Hell, last year he was on my “5 worst” list:

In my WAR HORSE review, I wrote: “Does Spielberg need a good screenwriter nowadays—Tony Kushner in “Munich,” say—to keep his worst instincts in check?” Apparently. In the last 10 years he's only made two good pictures, and both with Kushner. Day-Lewis didn't agree to do “Lincoln” until Kushner rewrote it. Or wrote it. Plus Spielberg gives in to his own worst instincts in the end: prolonging and prolonging. Sam Jackson was right on that.

Even so, it's a good movie, one of the year's best. I did the above because I remember some of Wells' attacks, particularly on the voice, and I wondered what the etymology of it all was.

Comment posted on Mon. Jan 14, 2013 at 07:11 PM

Squasher88 wrote:

This post is awesome. Thanks Erik!
I hate that Jeff is bringing such a hateful bias against Spielberg (and I say this with proof from listening to his recent podcast with Sasha).
If you read between the lines, you can tell that he himself recognizes the film's brilliance, but he can't get over his own personal bias. He should be ashamed of himself.

Comment posted on Wed. Jan 23, 2013 at 09:29 AM

Erik wrote:

Thanks, Squasher. Love the LIST OF SHAME on your blog. Also the many films you've knocked off of it...

Comment posted on Wed. Jan 23, 2013 at 10:23 AM

Sperky wrote:

This is awesome. Wells is a fool who Disney has banned from future screenings

Comment posted on Wed. Jan 23, 2013 at 10:34 AM

Joe Leydon wrote:

Classic. To pay you the highest compliment I can think of: I wish I would have written this myself.

Comment posted on Wed. Jan 23, 2013 at 04:54 PM

Rhett wrote:

Sadly you need to make this a living post, seeing as Wells continues to embarrass himself with revisionist Lincoln posting.

Too bad he'll never read this, let alone allow it all to sink in.

Comment posted on Wed. Jan 23, 2013 at 05:09 PM

Eric Gilde wrote:

Amazing, Erik. Seriously, hats off on showing the complete ridiculousness of Wells' latest anti-Spielberg campaign.

Reed, it's pretty funny that you review Lincoln without having seen it and give it a fail while also reviewing Munich without having seen it and give it high marks.

Can you give me a link to other reviews of things you know nothing about? I think that would make for a very entertaining read.

Comment posted on Wed. Jan 23, 2013 at 07:01 PM
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