Saturday, June 18, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXXIV: For example, to prepare for the role of Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis was actually elected President of the United States


As a history lesson, Lincoln is a worthwhile sit, even though it's a long one.  As a cinematic object, however, Lincoln is a decidedly flat experience.  It is elevated by its rarefied acting and interesting character work, but not to the point that you'll find me wholeheartedly recommending it; but then, movies about the political process are just about my least favorite thing in the world—so, please, consider that a disclosure of my bias.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner (based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin)
With Daniel Day-Lewis (Pres. Abraham Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Rep. Thaddeus Stevens), David Strathairn (Sec. State William Seward), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Lee Pace (Rep. Fernando Wood), and much, much more

Spoiler alert: he went to go see a nice play

The best thing I can say about Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is that it's a rather good version of what it is, and this is true even though what it is is little more than a legal procedural—no, worse, a legislative procedural—that takes place a hundred and fifty years ago, deals with an issue that no one who won't be dumped in a mass grave during the forthcoming Second American Civil War could possibly object to (namely, the passage of the 13th Amendment), and centers around one of the two or three American presidents who have been more-or-less deified by America's civic religion.  So you have to admit that Lincoln is a very, very minor triumph.  It pushes through the cobwebs of the 19th century and makes its history take on a certain stylized version of life; it focuses less upon the morality of the abolition of slavery than it does all the hard-nosed political maneuvering that it took to get a bunch of racists and crypto-racists on board for the Radical Republican agenda (which, of course, was not precisely Lincoln's own); and it gently desanctifies the legend of our 16th president—indeed, sometimes it quite savagely tears his presumptive holiness away, when it comes to certain scenes with his wife, Mary Todd, and his son, Robert—and it fittingly presents a rail-splitting demigod as merely a great man instead.

Plus, give Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner credit for this, too: Lincoln could've easily been just another Goddamned cradle-to-grave biopic, and at least it's not that.

But minor this triumph is nonetheless.  And it's easy to see why: Lincoln devotes itself to the process by which a foregone conclusion became reality, and while it peppers its rather punishing 150-minute runtime with enough entertainment value to get the populist viewer through it unscathed, it's not a tremendously fun or thrilling motion picture, nor one with an especially urgent message about the way things are today.  (At its best, Lincoln gives black folks the opportunity to deliver some withering looks from the background; at its very best, it gives one guy the opportunity to sarcastically recite the Gettysburg Address, from the midground.)  If one wanted to praise it, one might call it a high-patriotic ritual, leavened with brass-tracks realism; however, since I have little interest in overpraising a movie that has, since 2012, been heaped with worshipful accolades—including eleven Academy Award nominations (and one win)—let's instead describe it more aptly, as one of the most useful tools ever invented for the lazy high school history teacher.

Oh, the accolades aren't really that baffling, and I rather severely doubt there will ever be any need to make a movie about the Academy vote that netted Daniel Day-Lewis another Oscar.

So: Lincoln situates itself in the last days of the Civil War, when the South was essentially defeated but had not yet given up the ghost, and men were still dying on both sides, and when certain Republicans were eager to use the absence of the slave states and the weakness of the recently-defeated northern wing of the Democratic Party to get an amendment to the constitution passed, finally banning slavery across the entire United States.  The politics involved are not overly complex, but, as usual, not as purely simple as just doing the right thing: even within the Republican Party, conservatives were not excited about an amendment that they saw as a first step toward granting full equality to blacks, and which furthermore would push the South into an even more recalcitrant stance toward peace; with the utmost charity, you can perhaps see the conservative Republicans' reluctance as a desire to end the bloody war, rather than an expression of overt racism, although Lincoln doesn't shy away from suggesting both motives for the non-heroic members of Lincoln's party.

As far as heroes go, however, besides Lincoln himself, we have Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical faction, and everything really great about Lincoln comes directly from this man's mouth—not that you ought to be shocked, considering that this mouth belongs to Tommy Lee Jones, whose angry old man shtick has only rarely been better-deployed than right here.  It may well have been the role Jones was born to play, an asshole with a heart of gold and a tongue of silver, whose cleverest oratory is bent toward flinging an infinite number of florid 19th century insults in the general direction of everyone who had the sheer temerity to disagree with his obviously correct ideas.  "You are so low and flat that the foot of man is not capable of crushing you!", he bellows, and it is my favorite; but it is delivered within a altogether-wonderful two minute tirade, and honestly all of Jones' lines are of roughly the same quality.  In the end, when Stevens goes home after the long weeks of campaigning for the amendment, he provides one of Lincoln's few real surprises, which are rare enough that Stevens' very last scene could've died of loneliness before we got to it.

But the movie isn't called Stevens, and that's not just because nobody would know what the hell that movie was supposed to be about.  It is Lincoln at the core of things, and this is certainly good enough: Day-Lewis is frankly superb as the savior of the Union, with his physical resemblance to the president carrying him all the way up to "good" even before he opens his mouth and starts acting.  Kushner's rendition of Lincoln is a far more intimate one than you might expect for such a mythic figure, and one of the loveliest things about Lincoln that doesn't directly involve TLJ is that it's not afraid to give Lincoln some charming flaws, like his penchant for telling genial (and often completely pointless) prairie stories—and some actual flaws, too, like his buried anger toward his wife, and his frustrations with her more overt grief over their lost child.  (Sally Field is pretty great here, too, and that's not shocking—but maybe it's a little surprising just how well she holds her own with Day-Lewis.  In fact, let me just get it out of the way and say that everybody is "pretty great" here, and when I use the word "everybody," I do mean "everybody," Lincoln being a bona fide cavalcade of famous faces, whose recognizability properly directs your attention to their characters even though you likely have no idea who their characters are.  Meanwhile, the sheer number of notable actors in the picture keeps it on an even keel, without any one celebrity crowding the rest out.)

Anyway, the Lincoln of Lincoln is, on the surface, a gentle, almost absent-minded man—but it becomes clear enough, before we're through, that his folksy facade is just one more weapon in his politician's arsenal, as we see him time and again use his Illinois cornpone persona to confuse and disarm his opponents.  Of course, the most interesting thing about it is that it still feels pretty damned genuine, even then—Lincoln spins out his random facts and half-bullshit tales even when nobody important is listening—but that's Day-Lewis for you.  It's a layered, fascinating Lincoln we get here, and that's a good thing.  Although, to be sure, Spielberg and Kushner are certainly not above having the great actor shout passionately about equality and such, whenever they've determined it's been too long since anybody's yelled at anybody else.

Lincoln has very few truly visible flaws; its problems are more like mild deficiencies, mostly arising from Spielberg's somewhat misjudged attitude toward how interesting his material actually is.  (Though it's worst misstep isn't even close to invisible, this being Lincoln's brutally prolonged final five minutes—five minutes that outlast the natural ending of the piece while you make "wrap it up, Steven" gestures at the screen, because anyone could recognize that the self-consciously iconic shot of the president walking off, on his way to the Ford Theater—and only a moment after uttering an acceptably wonderful final line—is where the credits should have begun to roll.)

Perhaps it is Spielberg's largely hands-off direction, which adequately showcases the acting going on in front of the camera without ever making what they're doing especially filmic—not that this would be easy, mind you, since Lincoln is the talk opera of all time.  (There is one battle scene, right at the beginning, largely to give the film some kind of context, though one shouldn't overlook Spielberg's correct instinct to give it a burst of gritty energy right out of the gate, too.)  In any event, Lincoln manages a handsome period recreation thanks to champion production designer Rick Carter, and Spielberg—evidently intending to treat his subject with gravity—treats it with barely any emotion of any kind aside from the occasional foray into progressive triumphalism.  It's a lot of well-mounted compositions, adeptly glued together, and it is absolutely nothing very exciting—though, of course, it is often aggravatingly ugly in its palette and its lighting, for Spielberg's long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is, as usual, on hand to bleed all the color out this D.C. winter, as well as to position a bunch of giant lights behind giant windows, as the great-but-undisciplined DP is so obnoxiously prone to do, especially when he's not given a concrete task and asked to create a specific aesthetic besides his and Spielberg's default one.  I've come to the conclusion, upon watching how Kaminski lights the U.S. House of Representatives with giant shafts of light streaming through portals on both sides of the gallery, that the man isn't from Poland, he's from Alpha fucking Centauri, and this explains both why Kaminski's sunlight tends to be so oppressively bright, and also why Kaminski's sunlight tends to noticeably come from more than one location, even within the same fucking shot.  (Meanwhile, as for the facial keylighting in the scene that introduces Thaddeus Stevens and his Radical Republican colleagues to the audience, this is a like a child playing with a Goddamned toy.  Even leaving aside that it's atrociously put together even on a purely technical level, it also strongly suggests that Kaminski was apparently under the impression that Representative Stevens was not just a villain, but also a mighty wizard.)

The point is this: the cinema of Lincoln is not, as a general rule, here to pleasure you; and any enjoyment you nonetheless manage to extract from it will be from the human beings reciting their lines within its frame.  And while they're wonderful human beings, the lot of them, I just don't know if I needed to spend this much time with all of them, as they did nothing more exciting than wrangle a bill through Congress.  On one hand, I would hate to lose the subplots that give the president his humanity back.  But something, somewhere, either needed to be tightened, in order to get this movie closer to two hours than to an unsupportable two and a half; or else Lincoln needed to be even longer than it already is, and truly embrace the far-ranging scope of the epic it doesn't want to be—and with a great deal more active filmmaking, to match such heightened ambitions.

But this Lincoln is no epic at all; it's almost an anti-epic, in its way.  It's people engaged in a messy business, slowly boring through an awful lot of hard boards.  It's a valuable film in that regard.  And yet after two viewings, one in 2013 and one this very night, I really can't see any reason why I'd ever need to watch it again.  When it comes to Spielberg's two chronicles about American slavery, I'll take Amistad every time; for at least at the end of that movie, which is about the freedom of dozens, rather than the freedom of millions, you nevertheless actually feel the importance of the thing that's been accomplished right before your eyes.  Furthermore, it's a movie about slavery that actually has a black character of any importance whatsoever; so, you know, there's that, too.

Score: 6/10


  1. I love movies about political processes, but this just comes off as a hagiography with nothing interesting to say about its subject. It was technically solid, wonderfully acted, but apart from (as you acknowledge) Tommy Lee Jones, the whole thing just felt kind of hollow to me.

    It could have used more Cyclops.

    1. I think James Marsden is about the only guy that wasn't in this movie.

      I'd say that the hagiographic elements are underplayed--or played with a certain artificiality and irony--right up until that terrible ending. I only alluded to that dissolve that that turns the flickering flame of a lamp into the image of the president, and, Christ, is that overwrought.

    2. I don't know. When he's negotiating the surrender, at he's like 'Slavery, it's over'. They just hit it too hard sometimes.

    3. Oh, it does love old Abe, that's for sure.

  2. Lee Pace was in this, right? He's the only person that made me even consider going into the theater to check it out. I didn't. Though I saw that damn ending a good dozen times because I was working at a movie theater when it came out.

    1. Yep, he's the Young Arch-Racist Representative, chief henchman of Peter McRobbie, the Old Arch-Racist Representative. He's not blue in this movie, however.

  3. Now whenever I watch a Spielberg movie, part of my thought process is "I can't wait to read what Hunter's going to say Kaminski's lighting this time."

    1. I should watch some of his non-Spielberg films for comparison. I blame it on Kaminski, but it really must just be that this is the way Spielberg likes it, despite the near-uniform celebration of the very-different-looking first two-fifths of his career and the fact (I think this is true) that whenever anyone does mention the photography in Spielbergs it's either negative or if positive, couched in terms of surprise.

      Thing is, Kaminski can obviously be great, especially when given an aesthetic to do, and sometimes it works out somewhat on accident like in The Post or the live-action scenes of Ready Player One, but Spielberg seems to have gotten comfortable within the default parameters and not really tasked Kaminski since, I dunno, the Slocombe impression of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which I still think is pretty good even if the difference is quite apparent.

      Still wonder what sin Dean Cundey committed.