One of the most alienating experiences I have ever had was in a cinema studies class at NYU, during a screening of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. I revere Ford. I revere Lincoln. I am aware of the limitations of both men, but I hope I have the wisdom to know that their strengths are something in advance of mine. I watch a movie like this with an attitude of reverence. This is something that speaks to me — ought to speak, one would think, to every American, on some level.
You know where I’m going with this, right? It’s NYU, hotbed not of Reconstruction but of deconstruction. After a dismissive, jokey introduction from some hippie professor whose thing was probably Stan Brakhage, the film was screened…to non-stop laughter and catcalls by an audience of perhaps 200 moronic college students. As though this great film was self-evidently “bad”, as though it were propaganda, as though they were watching an Ed Wood movie or something. Typical were the gales of derisive laughter that greeted the scene in the film where a group of Revolutionary War veterans marches by in the 4th of July parade. It’s the sort of scene I (and one would think, any normal person) can be relied upon to cry at. Instead, the response was cruel, callous Roman-style laughter. It felt profane. Plainly I was in a room FULL of young people to whom everything I care about means nothing. Actually, more disturbing, was the strong sense that to these young people, NOTHING meant anything. And if nothing means anything, it bodes ill for humanity in a democracy.
Ford, Capra and other major figures of the classic Hollywood studio era understood their civic role. They, like the news media (once did), saw the film industry as an institution with duties above and beyond the profit motive, though they certainly didn’t neglect the latter either. We are, after all, a country that has no official state religion, and no official governmental propaganda apparatus (nor do we need or want one). Yet, still (I would argue) messages about tolerance and humanity have to come from somewhere. In America, certain people have been known to step up to the plate and do it themselves because it’s been needed. When the forum is wrong, I’m the first to admit it sucks. But when it is right, it serves an important function.
We drastically need examples of this kind of citizen leadership in our public life today. At the moment they are few and far between, and getting fewer all the time. From time to time, Steven Spielberg has dabbled with varying success in films that deal with questions of morality and citizenship; Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and Munich are the primary examples. Yet, bad as I say we need the equivalent of a Ford or a Capra, to date, for the most part that hasn’t been Spielberg. When he ventures in this direction he ends up taking it on the chin, because, frankly it’s not what he does best. Aliens, swashbucklers, sharks, dinosaurs…that’s his true comfort zone. In his more serious efforts, as a general rule, his treatment of characterization is crude and cartoonish; he often opts for flashy, self-conscious effects that cheapen the seriousness his subjects deserve. The word I would use for such moments is superficial. His two best pictures in the serious vein have World War Two and the Holocaust as their themes. It’s clearly something he feels deeply about, and when he remembers to serve the subject by putting it well ahead of cleverness for its own sake he has some very effective moments. That’s what it’s about. Putting the big picture ahead of one’s ego.
Still, I have been excited about Lincoln for months, because Spielberg does certain things well (including period detail and casting and working with fine actors, and some of our finest are in the present film). The previous Spielberg film which Lincoln resembles most is Amistad, a sort of forgettable, big-budget history lesson with a liberal cause at its heart, about a national politician risking everything in order to do what he knows is right. But Lincoln is vastly better, for reasons that shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s written by Tony Kushner, and based on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This, combined with Spielberg’s typically meticulous art direction make for a film that’s historically accurate and insightful, with dialogue that is by turns soaring, beautiful and inspirational. Not a given, by the way. Munich, which Kushner co-wrote, is no great shakes. But there’s a ton of research evident in Lincoln. Kushner not only got the musical sound of 19th century speech right, but he got the nuances WITHIN that reality right. Imagine the subtlety required to write Lincoln, a self-taught backwoodsman, whose speech mixes allusions to Shakespeare and the King James Bible along with frontier crudities, political potty-talk, the law, and the assorted table-scraps typical of the auto-didact (Euclid, for example). And this is before we get to all of the other characters. While I was in the experience of watching this film I wanted to stay there, I felt it washing over me like a warm bath. The reality of this universe is so well realized (this is what Spielberg does well), and with a REAL writer providing the script the film seldom slips into dum-dum territory.
The texture of it then is spot on. The shape of it, though, is less fortunate. For the most part Lincoln isn’t “Lincoln”, that is, it’s not a bio-pic that gives us his whole life story (I fear some audiences may be disappointed when that turns out to be the case). The bulk of the film – – about 80-90% — is about Lincoln’s political efforts to pass the 13th amendment to free the slaves. Because this is Lincoln’s signal accomplishment in world history — freeing the slaves — and because doing so is so much at the heart of what makes him tick, it ends up being as much a character study as if one had done a more conventional bio-pic. The remainder of the scenes concern his familial relationships, all in one way or another strained by the death three years earlier of the Lincolns’ middle son Willie. These at times feel shoe-horned into the political plot, or sprayed into the cracks like foam insulation. There’s much that feels overly expository, on the nose, and inactively in the past, a no-no in drama. The experience also feels mildly cheapened by Spielberg’s use of explanatory subtitles upon character entrances, a technique I associate with television movies and cheesy war movies like Midway and Tora! Tora! Tora! When a short cigar-smoking, bearded general walks over followed by adjutants, no one ought need to be told that he is “Ulysses S. Grant, General in Chief of the Union Army”.
But like I said, the movie is mostly about the efforts to pass the amendment. In some ways the movie it resembles most, shapewise, believe it or not, is 1776. The war is constantly present, but mostly offscreen, and mostly germane here in how it helps or hinders efforts to free the slaves. This is not your grandfather’s Lincoln. In fact, more than anyone’s, it’s Delores Kearns Goodwin’s, and her perspective is interesting. A former assistant to Lyndon Johnson as well as his biographer (she admires him a great deal) she has here essentially given us Lincoln as LBJ, in other words, the side of the President that’s a political horsetrader and an arm-twister in the House of Representatives. It’s not a hagiography, then. We get to see that famous stuff that goes into the making of sausages. This Lincoln can be devious, even ruthless, to achieve his ends. But because his goals are beyond reproach, and he has so many admirable sides to him, we can accept the reality — and the portrait does feel real.
I’m not sure how I feel about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance yet. As a general rule I think he is our greatest living actor, and this may be his most complex portrait ever. And yet there are aspects of it that I find just a shade on the side of patronizing: the perpetual, Santa Claus like twinkle in his eye, and the voice that seems to channel Will Rogers by way of Walter Brennan. It’s what we want of course. On the other hand, I also want to be surprised. And though we are surprised to hear him say “shit”, as he does in one of his lengthy, homespun anecdotes, we would be even more surprised to see him turn ugly and cat-kicking mean at 3 o’clock in the morning — as he undoubtedly sometimes did.
The other major players in the drama are Sally Field (well cast as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln); David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, whom for some unexplained reason becomes point person for engineering a legislative victory in the House (shouldn’t he be, uh, I don’t know, conducting international diplomacy?); Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, firebrand leader of the Radical Republicans; Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, one of the founders of the Republican Party, and Lincoln’s emissary (more than once) to the Rebel leadership; James Spader and John Hawkes (one of my favorite actors) as a couple of shady Washington bribers, sent to change the minds of dissenting congressmen; Jared Harris as U.S. Grant (he is PERFECT); Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Stanton; and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, another bit of genius casting.
Above all, Spielberg is nothing if not crazy like a fox. What is this country RIGHT NOW if not divided right down the middle, each half at the other half’s throats, each unwilling to compromise. And with a complex man in the White House whom half of us admire, adore, pray for, and the other half revile…for reasons not only of politics, but also apparently of race. If there is a way out of the impasse, out of the din, it’s got to be Lincoln’s way, “with malice toward none, with charity for all”. So, while I have some formal quibbles, I am “pleased as punch” (to channel Hubert Humphrey) that Spielberg made this film, and would be even more so to see a ton more like it coming out of Hollywood…until cynical, soulless crap like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter become less than a footnote, and the students at NYU are inspired to actually build things and not just knock them down.
Lincoln opens nationwide this Friday, November 16.